In Grove Park, residents wonder if City Hall cares

June 27, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

When they talk about the salvation of neighborhoods in the city of Baltimore, the geniuses at City Hall should be taken to Grove Park. But they need to hurry. Those who live there think the future has arrived, and it troubles them that government seems to be sloughing it off.

Take the thing happening on Crawford Avenue now, where five members of the Grove Park Improvement Association sit around a table, all of them retired professionals, all of whom have raised families in this northwest Baltimore community, and they talk about some housing development ready to be built against their wishes.

Here is Zelma Brown, a retired schoolteacher who has lived on this block for 33 years. Since Kennedy died, she says, marking the era carefully. And here's Blanche LeCompte, a retired teacher here for 30 years, who talks about longtime neighbors who feel like family.

And Marion Haley, a retired Social Security clerk, 19 years here, a widow who talks about always feeling safe in the neighborhood. What a remarkable thing for such a nervous time, she says.

And Delores Wilson, a retired teacher, 32 years here. Like the others, she raised a family in this neighborhood and wants, in her autumn years, a time of grace. And Richard Holley, a retired schoolteacher, 32 years on Crawford Avenue and wondering why city officials don't seem to understand what they're about to do here.

These folks are part of a bruised generation. Three decades ago, when Baltimore went through its earliest convulsions of white flight, they were the first black people to move into this neighborhood, which starts by Arlington Cemetery on Rogers Avenue, stretches across Kennison and Elderon avenues by Grove Park Elementary, moves along Crawford past Groveland and out Belle Avenue until it touches the Seton Apartments.

They were college-educated and had young families when they arrived. They had middle-class ideals. They were homebuyers. And they looked around and wondered where everybody white was running, when all they wanted was a nice place to live.

Over 30 years, as the flight from Baltimore continued -- among blacks and whites, among those fleeing high taxes and chilling crime and bureaucratic indifference -- they stayed, and made this neighborhood flourish.

And now they wonder: Is it about to change?

Yes, say city officials, but don't let it worry you. Yes, officials say, they've made plans with a private developer to tear into a lush wooded area by Grove Park Elementary School and build 85 townhouses. Yes, they say, and if you don't like it, well, you can't stop us.

"That's what [Housing Commissioner] Daniel Henson told us," says Richard Holley, president of the Grove Park Improvement Association. Around the table now, heads nod in agreement. All were there when Henson said it.

"He said they wanted to build 85 townhouses, but if we tried to stop it, the zoning code said they could still build 40 of them without our permission," Holley says. "He said it was coming, whether we wanted it or not. We told him we thought it would be bad for the neighborhood. He said his job was to get a higher tax base for the city."

Around the table, heads nod again in agreement. They heard it, too. They feel they're being bullied into this. They feel they've worked hard all their lives to hold this community together, and now outside forces are taking control. And they know Henson's reputation for tough-guy tactics, and they're resentful.

Yesterday, Housing spokesman Zack Germroth, said: "It's hard to imagine $100,000 homes destabilizing a neighborhood, but we do understand some of their concerns." He said city officials have scheduled a meeting with neighborhood residents for next week.

Meanwhile, the Grove Park Improvement Association has spoken with other city officials.

"One city planner," says Holley, "told us, 'Look, the neighborhood's gotten older. You've all kept it together, but it's probably gonna deteriorate once you people are gone. It'll turn into rental properties.'

"Now, isn't that a terrible thing, to just give up on a neighborhood? We said, after all the people who have pulled out of this city, and we stayed, even with the high taxes, doesn't the city owe us something?"

Around the table come echoes of Holley's words. The development, The Townhouses at Grove Park, is set to break ground in the fall. The concerns are stability, overcrowding, traffic, congestion in a neighborhood of immaculate homes, clean and quiet streets, and solid families who have paid their dues.

"We don't consider ourselves a closed neighborhood," Holley says, "but why take a place that works well and change it? They tell us they understand, but they're going ahead anyway."

It's a community that has survived change. More than 20 years ago, a huge woods where children once romped was turned into Northern Parkway between Reisterstown and Liberty roads. Then came the Seton Industrial Park, a district court building, a Metro station, a shopping center, a sanitation relay station, all imposed on that same formerly wooded geography. The neighborhood elementary school became overcrowded, so portable classrooms were built -- atop part of the school's playground.

Now, residents worry, an influx of 85 townhouses would mean at least 250 people, with children to crowd the school, and with cars to crowd the streets. The new development would have one entrance: on the same block as the elementary school.

Grove Park has been a model community in a city hungry for such things. The geniuses at City Hall want an expanded tax base, but at what cost to the future?

Pub Date: 6/27/96

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