Woman, 56, hammers out a future rehabbing houses

January 14, 1995|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,Sun Staff Writer

Bright red bricks and freshly painted white window ledges make the rowhouse at 517 Mosher St. stand out from other homes in West Baltimore's Marble Hill neighborhood.

To Gwendolyn A. Walker, the three-story building carries special meaning -- she renovated it with her own money and her own hands. "That's my baby," sighs the 56-year-old Sandtown resident, who jumped into the housing rehab business after being laid off by General Electric three years ago.

Now, Ms. Walker is poised to renovate three more Mosher Street houses. This week, her company won a $194,000 loan from the Community Development Financing Corp. (CDFC). She also is applying for a $210,000 grant from a division of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"I just have a philosophy to life that I use," Ms. Walker, who heads Fitzgerald Estates Inc., says with a broad smile. "Take a deep breath, and get back into the fight."

Ms. Walker has been fighting for success for a long time.

Born, reared and married in New Jersey, she says she had a "violent relationship" with her husband, Maynard, of 10 years. In 1967, she packed up her three children -- ages 2 to 6 at the time -- some clothes and some furniture and went to live in Catonsville with her brother, DeVeal Fitzgerald.

To support her children, Ms. Walker worked as a custodian, a mattress maker and at other jobs. When she started working at GE's huge Columbia warehouse in 1971, she juggled two other jobs -- as a cashier for Sears and a tailor for Cookie's in Reisterstown Plaza -- sometimes sleeping only 15 minutes between jobs in her car in the GE parking lot.

"I did a lot of things to survive," she says. "I couldn't afford to buy clothes. So, since I learned to sew, I made clothes for my children and myself."

At GE, Ms. Walker drove a forklift and operated a crane. But in 1986, the company announced that the warehouse would close by the end of 1990.

To turn her life around, Ms. Walker took advantage of GE's offer to finance courses so workers could learn a new trade, and within six months she had passed all her GED courses and received a diploma. She won $10,000 from GE's business apprenticeship program, which was impressed by her plan to renovate homes. And, after collecting unemployment checks for six months, she decided to enroll in a 10-month building renovation course.

In 1991, she used much of her severance pay and the $10,000 grant from GE to buy the house at 517 Mosher St., converting it into three one-bedroom apartments. Within three months and with the help of William "Bunny" Stewart, a friend and retired plumber, she finished refurbishing and painting the walls, and laying down the pipe.

Graduating at the top of her class, Ms. Walker boldly asked Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke for additional renovating funds during her commencement speech.

"I told him, 'Now I've graduated from school, and I renovated this house, and I need your money,' " she says. "He said he could feel my hands in his pockets."

Now, she's waiting to transform three more vacant Mosher Street houses -- 509, 523 and 525 -- into seven apartments.

Her success so far has delighted Deborah Bass, a CDFC loan officer. "[She is] one of those die-hards. She's serious about accomplishing her goals, which to an extent are becoming a developer and providing decent housing to a community in need."

Ms. Walker has yet to receive approval from the federal agency, which will make its decision at the end of the month. That grant would cover construction costs, while the CDFC money will go toward appraisals, designs and future acquisitions. She hopes to have most of the money by February.

Ms. Walker credits her success to her belief in herself.

"I think the lucky thing is I always gambled on me," she says. "A lot of people gamble on the lottery and other stuff. I always gambled on me.

"I think I have a survivor's mentality. Whatever it takes -- as long as it's honest -- I'm willing to do it. Two, three jobs, I'm willing to do it."

And looking back, Ms. Walker says that being laid off from GE was actually a blessing.

"GE forced me to go to school and take a different route, and financially it's going to be better than if I had stayed with GE and retired. Life is funny, isn't it?"

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