Which neighborhoods to abandon?

March 09, 1996|By Antero Pietila

THE FIRST scaffolding of the spring is going up -- a sign that gives as much hope to urban residents as the first daffodils.

We live in distressing times. The number of vacant houses in Baltimore has never been so high.

Look at the 600 and 700 blocks of North Carey Street, near Lafayette Square. Once, vandals would have been content to steal the copper pipes and architectural artifacts from these once-grand houses. These blocks have been stripped of everything. What was not taken was broken. You don't have to be a psychologist to realize that human termites went berserk there. But why? Were they crazed on drugs or just venting anti-social aggressions?

I've been driving through different city neighborhoods. There are many fine and stable areas. But dozens of blocks look like they belong to Bosnia.

The scale of devastation -- measured by ransacked housing and drug addiction -- is so vast that it is difficult to be optimistic. Yet somehow life continues. On streets near sites of urban devastation, landlords report surprisingly brisk rentals by working families as long as the houses are sound and the rent agreeable.

Baltimore is in the midst of a crucial transition. As the unrelenting middle-class exodus out of the city continues, some neighborhoods are emptying and dying. In another 10 or 15 years this city is likely to look very different: It will have islands of residential viability isolated by stretches of bulldozed -- or undemolished -- wasteland.

This prospect is so obvious that pretty soon city officials will have to make painful choices about which neighborhoods to save and which ones to let go. Perhaps the wholesale abandonment of inner-city houses -- which are not even boarded up -- signifies they are already making those choices but are afraid to admit it.

Pick and choose

This presents a particularly thorny challenge to Baltimore's preservationists. Confronted with an ever-increasing supply of buildings and neighborhoods on the endangered lists, they, too, will have to pick and choose.

Baltimore has more than 30 recognized historic districts. They range from Bancroft Park, a suburban northwest community constructed between 1906 and the late 1920s, to Stirling Street, a single block of 1835-vintage brick rowhouses near downtown which were restored by urban homesteaders in the 1970s.

Many of these neighborhoods are stable. As scaffolding on Hanover Street suggests, Federal Hill is spilling over to scruffier parts. Private developers also are reviving a block of Calhoun Street, south of Franklin Square. In both areas, shells of old houses can be acquired so cheaply that restoration is a profitable option.

Restoration has become a big industry. At the Baltimore Convention Center March 17-19, some 275 exhibitors will display their restoration products and services. There will be workshops and demonstrations for architects, contractors -- and homeowners.

''People are realizing this is an era of limits. Why keep tearing down buildings just because they are not brand-new?'' asks Steven Schuyler, of RAI/EGI Exhibitions Inc. More than 10,000 people attended when the firm (tel. 508- 664-6455) organized a similar conference in Boston a year ago.

The heady days of urban homesteading may be gone, but the restoration movement lives on. In addition to Victorian gems, Americans are now trying to return tarnished bungalows and Colonial Revival houses to their original splendor. Old-House Journal and an array of magazines focusing on period interiors are thriving.

Old houses are not for everyone. But they are a precious heritage no city should squander.

Antero Pietila, an editorial writer, lives in an 1857 city home with a brick privy in the yard.

Pub Date: 3/09/96

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