Home to one of the city's most industrialized areas and settled predominantly by Eastern European immigrants, Southeast Baltimore is famous for its ethnic enclaves, well-scrubbed white marble steps, windows adorned with ceramic busts of the Virgin Mary -- and Elvis -- and painted screens as well as back yards filled with grape trellises and fig trees.
The area, which extends from Little Italy on the west to Graceland Park and St. Helena's on the east, from McElderry-Park and McElderry-Decker on the north, including the industrial areas south of Pulaski Highway, down to the waterfront on the south, encompasses about 20 residential communities and about 100 organizations, represented by the South East Community Organization (SECO).
"It was the kind of place where everybody knew everybody and watched out for each other," said Tony Trotta, who grew up in the area and whose family has lived there since 1899, when his grandmother purchased a house in Highlandtown. "Many of my family members are still in the Southeast community."
Typically, extended families lived within shouting distance of each other, and the area's solid housing stock was coveted. Close to the largely blue-collar jobs of its industrial sections; close to churches, schools, services and shopping, houses were passed from generation to generation.
Second and third generations commonly lived in houses originally purchased by grand and great-grandparents, and houses rarely came to market. When houses were sold, agreements -- between families and friends -- were often forged in funeral parlors and corner stores.
" 'For sale' signs were rare," Trotta said.
But recent years have brought decline to the area. A number of the area's major employers such as the American Can Co., Western Electric Co. and Lever Brothers either closed or relocated, eliminating the job base, leaving according to a December 1993 copy of the Southeast Community Plan, approximately 300 acres of underused and vacant industrial land in Canton alone.
A decrease in work opportunities led to a decline in homeownership and an increase in investor sales, changing the demographics of the area.
In addition, much of the remaining population consisted of aging residents, who, in keeping with tradition, continued to pass homes down to offspring, who, in turn, either rented them out as absentee landlords or relied on county-based Realtors, unfamiliar with the area, to sell them. As a result, an increasing number of homes remained unsold and vacant -- according to the same plan -- at an 11 percent vacancy rate for a total of 30,000 housing units in the area as of October 1993.
"A few years ago, we began to notice a lot of 'for sale' signs, a lot more than we were used to," Trotta said. "We also began to notice that Eastern Avenue had an increasing number of vacancies and trash in the streets. Many of us thought that Eastern Avenue would revive itself, but it didn't. Eastern Avenue is a barometer for what's happening in the rest of the community, so we knew we had a problem."
Enter a group of spirited, never-say-die community activists, the Southeast Development Inc. (SDI), a nonprofit organization -- spun out of SECO -- armed with a two-pronged, five-year comprehensive plan, the Southeast Development Initiative, to reclaim the area's stability.
"We got together about 2 1/2 years ago to do something about the problem and to attract homeowners and businesses back to the area," said Trotta, president of the initiative's board of directors.
According to Sandy McCollum, director of economic development for SDI, an initiative that focused on economic development and homeownership simultaneously would enable the organization to implement an aggressive and more extensive effort to shore up stability in declining areas and to maintain still-healthy ones.
The plan's goal? To help about 600 homebuyers with mortgage and rehabilitation counseling and to assist in the creation of 80 businesses with 150 new jobs over the next three years.
"We had to rethink the area and identify the kinds of people that would be interested in moving to the Southeast," McCollum said.
The initiative also includes an extensive marketing plan, targeting empty-nesters moving from the county, young families with children, young professionals as first-time homebuyers and low-to moderate-income families already renting in the area.
"There is a great diversity of homes in Southeast. They range from as low as $25,000 to more than $1 million on the gold coast [the waterfront area]," said Janet Byers, SDI's housing director. "Many people who think they don't make enough money to buy a house would be surprised to find out what they actually can afford. There is really something for everyone in Southeast."
Although SDI's economic development plan and housing effort had already been in place, to achieve the goals of the initiative, SDI established an information and resource center at 3614 Eastern Ave. in the Highlandtown shopping district Sept. 1, 1994.