Curtis Bay's residents rise to its defense again Old working-class area of Baltimore battles to save its values

Neighborhood profile

January 07, 1996|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

To Curtis Bay residents, their South Baltimore neighborhood has always been worth fighting for.

That was true in the 1880s, when the community campaigned to have the bay dredged so that steamships could navigate along the piers. And it was true in the late 1970s, when they warred against pollution from the industrial plants that line the waterfront. The community has been in a constant battle.

Like many city dwellers, Curtis Bay residents are fighting to keep crime and drugs off their streets, while maintaining their older homes and roads. They also hope to cope with urban flight by attracting new homes and more jobs.

"This is a struggling community that's basically fighting back," said 42-year-old Curtis Bay native Duane E. Tressler, who is the fourth generation of his family to live in his Pennington Avenue rowhouse.

"This area is teetering on the edge. We can build all the houses we want but unless we deal with the crime, drug and social problems -- especially prostitution -- we're going to lose the neighborhood."

As Mr. Tressler strolls about Curtis Bay's 16-square-block residential area, he recalls growing up in a quiet, picturesque neighborhood with its bustling industrial backdrop.

Mr. Tressler remembers cobblestone curbs, brick sidewalks and streets that were named after the trees that lined them.

"It was always a close-knit community -- very ethnic and very working-class," he said.

Originally, Curtis Bay was the 1887 expansion of Brooklyn, then a northern Anne Arundel County agricultural community that had been established in 1853 by the Patapsco Company.

The two communities share much of the same history. For example, the same contractor built all 25 of their churches between 1893 and 1895. Even today, the names Brooklyn-Curtis Bay are said together as if they were one place, even though Bay Brook Park separates the two and each prizes its separate identity.

Brooklyn and Curtis Bay were annexed to Baltimore in 1918, along with the neighboring southern peninsula communities of Fairfield (now a city empowerment zone), Wagners Point and Hawkins Point. During the war years and the economic boom years in the 1950s and 1960s, the neighborhood flourished.

However, the community has experienced a general decline in the past 10 years, residents say.

One Curtis Bay native, 46-year-old Rita B. Lamke, the secretary at Curtis Bay Elementary School, observed, "It's just not the way it used to be. As a young person, Curtis Bay was beautiful. You could sit on your steps and talk to your neighbors. Now we're afraid to walk to the store. You have to chain things in your own back yard and lock all your doors. We need to take our neighborhood back."

James H. Persing Jr., 33, says Curtis Bay was a "nice neighborhood" when he moved there six years ago. Now, Mr. Persing says he hears gunfire behind his [See Curtis Bay, 2K] house. Although he helped start a citizens patrol, he says he's fearful about raising his 5-year-old daughter in the area and plans to move.

Others still aren't ready to give up on Curtis Bay -- at least not on Wayne Rankin's watch. The 50-year-old father of two school-age children is a member of a safety patrol composed of parents of students at Benjamin Franklin Middle School. Each morning, from his window, he watches all the students go to school to make sure they all get there.

Mr. Rankin also volunteers at the Brooklyn-Curtis Bay Community Policing Center on Pontiac Avenue.

"My street was heavily infested with drugs and guns about a year or so ago. We had four shootings on my block within a 12-month period in 1994 and 1995. It's 95 percent drug-free today. I got fed up and started volunteering."

Many citizens are members of a block-watching program and report crimes to Southern District police. Officer Norita Cohen, who has worked in the neighborhood services unit covering the area for five years, says that while drug, prostitution and juvenile crime continue in the area, "Citizens in Curtis Bay really work together when they have problems."

Many volunteer groups remain strong, whether they represent churches, civic organizations, seniors or the parents of students.

A brand-new townhouse development, Farring Heights, is giving others hope. Struever Bros., Eccles and Rouse is building 72 three-level townhouses to be sold to low- to moderate-income families.

With a starting price of $72,900, low down payments and credit counseling, the Struever project is averaging three to four sales a month.

Susan Songy, sales and marketing manager at Builders 1st Choice, which is handling the Farring Heights development, says that sales rate is "good for anyarea."

Susanne Gurney, manager of Century 21-Don Gurney, a real estate company with four offices inadjacent Anne Arundel County, said prices are lower in Curtis Bay.

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