Belair-Edison's efforts fail to stop flight to suburbs

April 03, 1995|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Sun Staff Writer

In Belair-Edison, the rowhouses are neat and affordable, the ++ parks and alleys clean, the block watch captains always on duty and the slumlords held at bay.

Here is a neighborhood where natives pronounce Belair "Blair," a place so quintessentially Baltimore that filmmaker Barry Levinson shot scenes for "Avalon" and "Tin Men" on streets known for red brick rowhouses lined with handsome porches.

But even here, in the tidy Northeast Baltimore neighborhood of 14,000 people -- named one of Maryland's best by a state commission last year -- people are fleeing for the suburbs.

And as the U.S. Census Bureau predicts the city population will dip below 700,000 this year for the first time since World War I, this is one neighborhood fighting to stop the hemorrhage.

For more than a decade, Belair-Edison has recruited young families and singles and has competed aggressively with speculators trying to buy houses for cheap rental property.

The leaders of Belair-Edison, a proudly integrated neighborhood, continue to fight racial discrimination and panic selling by white homeowners. This year, an ad campaign, financed with a federal grant, will promote the advantages of living in racial harmony in Belair-Edison.

"If we can't salvage this neighborhood, we should close up shop," says Vincent Quayle, director of St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, which has been fighting to preserve the city's neighborhoods for 27 years.

Over the past nine years, St. Ambrose has purchased, repaired and sold more than 40 houses to new homeowners in the Belair-Edison neighborhood.

An additional 300 new homeowners -- armed with $9 million in loans -- have come to the community with the help of counseling from Belair-Edison Housing Services.

"I think it's probably the best housing value in the metropolitan area -- three bedrooms, brick rowhouses with plaster walls for $50,000 to $60,000 in magnificent shape," says Mr. Quayle. "People love the place."

But he and others fighting to retain Belair-Edison's residents face one major obstacle -- a public school system with a reputation for violence and low academic standards.

"The primary reason that people are leaving such a beautiful community is the schools -- the perception that the public school system does not deliver quality services," he says.

Race is often an unspoken motivation for white people leaving Belair-Edison -- and other city neighborhoods -- and even in deciding where their children will go to school. Over the past 40 years, that undercurrent has driven much of the suburban "white flight" and has led many parents to send their children to private schools.

Kathy Spath and her family moved from their Belair-Edison rowhouse last summer to a modern split-level in rural Chase, where her 6-year-old son and pet greyhound can run in a back yard near woods.

But she also moved, she says, so her son can attend a predominantly white public school.

Although Ms. Spath, who is white, says she liked living in an integrated city neighborhood, she was reluctant to send her son to Brehms Lane Elementary School, which is 82 percent black. "I didn't want him to be in a school where he'd be a minority," she says.

While Brehms Lane Elementary is predominantly black, the neighborhood that surrounds it is 60 percent white, according to the 1990 Census -- the most recent figures available.

"We are experiencing the browning of Brehms Lane," says Claudia Brown, Brehms Lane Elementary's first black principal.

Ms. Brown, who has been there for five years, says white families in the neighborhood are more inclined to send their children to private schools with other white children.

"Birds of a feather flock together," she says.

But, she adds, she makes a special effort to see that the white minority in her school is treated equally. "I insist all children are treated fairly. I have a zero-tolerance policy [for racial discrimination]."

Many white children from Belair-Edison attend the most popular private school in the neighborhood, the Shrine of the Little Flower, a Catholic school that goes to the eighth grade. The school is such a landmark that real estate agents often call the neighborhood "Little Flower."

Principal Lee Logue says the school is 85 percent white, although the black population is increasing. Of 30 new students this year, 28 are black.

Even in Mr. Logue's private school, where annual tuition costs $2,200, the impact of many white families moving to the suburbs is felt.

"This year we lost 50 students because everyone's moving," he says, noting that members of one family commute from their new home in Carroll County so their children can continue to attend his school.

"It used to be if you saw a for sale sign it was rare and it was up for only one day. Now you see every block has three or four houses for sale," he says. "Panic has something to do with it. If you live in a block with three or four for sale signs, you think, 'Maybe I should move, too.' "

But Mr. Logue doesn't understand the panic.

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