Broadway, a boulevard of contrasts

August 03, 1996|By Antero Pietila

It is a boulevard of stark contrasts.

Take a stroll along Broadway, north of the Johns Hopkins and the Kennedy Krieger medical institutions. Next to the ornate neo-Victorian structures of a new Metro station are devastated blocks of abandoned rowhouses but also newly constructed or rehabiliated buildings. Which way will this area go in the future?

If the plans of the Historic East Baltimore Community Coalition are realized, this Broadway stretch will soon undergo an ambitious facelift. The goal is to rehabilitate blocks of rowhouses on Broadway and nearby slum streets, lessen overall density through demolition and attract homeowners making between $18,000 and $43,000 to the area through a variety of governmental and private incentives. A total of about 400 derelict houses would be torn down and 600 new dwelling units created under the $34 million program.

Skeptics say a similar initiative was proposed for the area a decade ago and never got off the ground. Now, though, plans are moving ahead, although at a pace much slower than anticipated.

In one of the first concrete renewal moves, more than 20 slum houses were demolished recently. But what does that mean?

"Depends on your perspective," says Michael V. Seipp, head of the public-private partnership. "If you are a cynic, it means you are on the first stage of urban renewal. If you are an optimist, it means you are providing new development optual construction work started. "If we can be up and running in January 1997, that would be great," says Mr. Seipp.

The 180 square blocks north of the Hopkins and Kennedy Krieger medical institutions contain some of the worst housing -- and poverty-driven social problems -- in Baltimore.

Trying to make things better

There has been no shortage of earlier attempts to improve things.

As early as 1950, 27 blighted blocks bounded by Caroline, Preston, Chester and Chase streets were chosen for an experiment called the Baltimore Plan. A costly film was made about the project, which triggered national interest. Forty-six years later, the deterioration of that area shows how even the best efforts can be defeated when abject poverty, crime and drugs conspire with the disappearance of community consciousness and economic base.

Several subsequent efforts have been made in other corners to improve housing. The results are mixed. The amount of new construction is impressive, but improvements have not managed to halt overall deterioration.

The current East Baltimore plan aims to achieve a number of goals. It hopes to give the medical institutions and other "anchors," from commercial employers to churches, room to grow. Meanwhile, an incentive program is being developed to enable employees of the Johns Hopkins medical fordable housing in the area. This would mean a comprehensive redevelopment of currently drug-infested blocks just north of the Hopkins complex.

All in all, the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition hopes to create nine development magnets in an irregularly shaped area bounded by North Avenue and Biddle Street on the north; Patterson Park and Montford avenues on the east; Fayette Street on the south; and Broadway, Eden and Aisquith streets on the west. "At some point we have to do comprehensive rezoning here," says Mr. Seipp.

So many previous hopes have been dashed that even he acknowledges, "It's tough going out there cheerleading folks."

Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Sun.

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