Canute in Sandtown

February 17, 1996|By Antero Pietila

AS YOGI BERRA said, ''It's deja vu all over again.'' About 25 years after the city launched the ''largest redevelopment project we've ever seen'' -- as then-housing commissioner M. Jay Brodie put it -- the Upton area is struggling.

Pennsylvania Avenue itself, from North Avenue to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, looks shaky but not necessarily doomed. Providence Baptist Church is building an annex to its sanctuary; plans are under way to reconstruct Lafayette Market.

But traverse just a block east or west of The Avenue and conditions worsen.

Although Druid Hill Avenue is increasingly decrepit, things are particularly bad west of Pennsylvania Avenue. A row of old three-story houses on one side of the 1400 block of Argyle Avenue is ransacked and open to the elements.

Worse yet, at least four units of a 1970s urban-renewal apartment house on the other side of that block also are boarded up.

Neighborhood deterioration here and in many other sections of Baltimore has acquired such a pace and scope that the downward spiral may be unstoppable.

A case in point is nearby Sandtown-Winchester.

Its federally supported Nehemiah project, begun in 1987, has produced 300 new and rehabbed homes, mostly for low-income homeownership. But although the multi-million-dollar scheme has won plaudits nationwide as an innovative way to reverse the fortunes of a declining neighborhood, long-term success in Sandtown is very much in doubt.

Visual inspection of the larger area -- bounded by Franklin Street, Fulton and North avenues and Eutaw Street -- shows that deterioration around redevelopment is growing. Once-solid middle-class blocks in Harlem Park and Lafayette Square are now abandoned and vandalized.

Laughable signs

Indeed the number of vacant properties has so increased around Sandtown-Winchester that occasional signs declaring that a particular house has been targeted to be among 600 to be renovated by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke seem laughable. What good will one rehabbed house do on a block that is otherwise ruined and abandoned?

While the eight-year housing record of the Schmoke administration is poor, it is unlikely that any mayor could tame the socio-economic forces that are creating this havoc. There are few legitimate jobs in this area and the whole basis for the community's economic survival has fallen off.

In this sense, Sandtown- Winchester is repeating what happened in Upton 25 years ago. Once the center of segregated black business and entertainment activity, the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor had lost 15 to 30 percent of its population by 1970, when the urban-renewal plan came along.

The goal was an ambitious one: Of the 183-acre Upton area's 3,680 dwelling units, half were to be replaced. The plan involved developer James W. Rouse, who later became the philosophical guru of Sandtown-Winchester revitalization. At both sites, he preached concepts such as low-income homeownership. But the Upton plan was not even half-completed before its funding was cut due to changing priorities in Washington.

So, what is the lesson?

The lesson is that while government may try to give artificial resuscitation to a faltering community, rescue efforts are likely to succeed only if that community has jobs, is economically viable and capable of recovery. Otherwise remedial measures are not enough to halt the outflow of families and businesses.

Unless the city and private investors recognize the basic economic realities in Sandtown-Winchester, they are dooming that community to Upton's fate.

Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Sun.

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