Crime increase mars image of historic 'Pastel Block' Tyson Street enclave asks city to crack down on theft, prostitution

September 26, 1995|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

Quaint, unassuming Tyson Street, tucked away in Baltimore's Mount Vernon District, seems an unlikely place to start a revolution.

But nearly 50 years ago, artist Edward Rosenfeld did just that when he bought one of the small brick-fronted rowhouses in the 900 block, between Read Street and Park Avenue, and launched the country's first privately financed urban renaissance.

Other artists and artisans followed their friend to create their own little colony. They restored the early 19th-century homes, created elaborate gardens and painted the fronts in a rainbow of colors, which led to the nickname "The Pastel Block" and inclusion in the Encyclopaedia Britannica in the 1950s.

Tyson Street showed the way for such neighborhood rebirths and renewals as Otterbein, Ridgely's Delight, Stirling Street, Barre Circle and even Fells Point -- but now its residents feel surrounded by a hostile urban environment, a reflection of the physical and cultural changes in the city and the streets around them.

Residents complain of loiterers drinking in Brexton Alley, which bisects the street, and public urination, petty theft and male prostitution -- problems deemed so serious that they are to meet tomorrow with City Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge and senior Central District police officers.

Still, residents insist that their enclave thrives and is "still the best place to live in the city."

For the most part, the Tyson Street houses appear well-maintained and the street is clean. The hokey-cart man is on the job, sweeping up litter dropped by motorists and removing the leaves that have fallen from maple trees lining the street.

The artists are gone and a new generation of young people is beginning to move into the houses, bringing fresh perspectives to the street.

"Tyson Street has always been a symbol of stability," Mr. Ambridge said, promising to do what he can to ensure its preservation.

The Mount Vernon district, which includes Tyson Street, has become the gay center of Baltimore. Residents describe young hustlers stationing themselves along Tyson, usually in the early morning hours, as prospective customers circle the block in cars.

Leon's, the corner bar, was a beatnik joint in the '60s, but is now a gay hangout, neighbors say.

"They have sex right there on the street or in cars under the street lights. It's a problem for the neighbors; you don't want your mother or wife or your daughter seeing this," said one resident who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Overt drug-trafficking has not become a problem on Tyson Street, but anything left out at night is certain to be stolen, such as yard furniture and ornaments, residents say.

"If you leave it out, it's gone," said Michael Hebert, one of the younger Tyson Street residents.

Liquor and beer bottles litter Brexton Alley. The vestibule of the red-brick Brexton Apartments at Chase and Park, built as a hotel in 1881 and vacant for years, is full of empties.

"The whole decline is part of the city's decline," said William Wurzberger, 71, who has lived on Tyson Street since 1970.

But Mr. Wurzberger is quick to assert that, despite the problems, he is staying put. "I see this as an island," he said. "The only thing that makes it bad is the crime scene."

Stanley Rhodes, a New York travel broker, and his partner, Paul Williams, bought their house in 1990 to complete the "historic restoration" begun by its former owner, the late Priscilla Lee Miles, who wrote guides to Roland Park and walking tours through a dozen city neighborhoods.

"Baltimore is full of interesting neighborhoods," Mr. Rhodes said, "Bolton Hill, Butcher's Hill, Reservoir Hill; we looked at all of them but we fell in love with Tyson Street."

He called the Mount Vernon district the cultural heart of the city, "one of the most architecturally exquisite sections in the country," and asked: "Is there a more beautiful square in the country than Mount Vernon Place?"

But he said the city has forgotten Mount Vernon.

However, Mr. Rhodes added, "I am optimistic."

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