Marble Hill tour aims to attract residents A key selling point is area's black history

February 21, 1997|By Marilyn McCraven | Marilyn McCraven,SUN STAFF

Twenty years ago, Marion McGaskey Blackwell was a pioneer, moving into a depressed area of West Baltimore that many people were fleeing for the suburbs.

Attracted by low prices for large, historic houses, Blackwell and a number of other young, black professionals planned to make their neighborhood, Marble Hill, as trendy as nearby Bolton Hill, Federal Hill and Union Square. But that dream hasn't been realized.

"We never got that critical mass of homeowners that's needed to make a significant change," said Blackwell, 53.

Now, in another effort to attract homeowners, the Marble Hill Community Association is offering a Black History Month Tour from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. tomorrow and March 1, beginning at the community association's offices at 418 Mosher St.

On both days, visitors will receive a list of 25 homes for sale by private owners -- mostly long-vacant buildings that are generally architecturally sound, Blackwell said. Visitors will be invited to walk around the neighborhood, look at the homes' exteriors and to call property owners for a full tour.

"One of our key selling points here is black history," Blackwell said. "When I walk these streets, I think about how this is the neighborhood of Thurgood Marshall, the Mitchells, Furman Templeton and Violet White."

For much of this century, Marble Hill, a part of the Upton neighborhood, was a choice address for African-Americans. That began to change as segregationist barriers fell and black people began moving to other parts of the city and the suburbs.

"It's important for people to preserve that neighborhood because so many great leaders came from Marble Hill," said Elizabeth Byrd, director of public relations for the Great Blacks in Wax Museum.

The modern issues that hinder the community's development are vacant houses and the vandals who raid the houses for items to sell to scrap dealers.

Walking around her neighborhood of large, red-brick rowhouses yesterday, Blackwell turned somber when pointing out stately homes that have been vacant for years -- often because heirs can't find a buyer.

"The perception people have of our neighborhood is not accurate," said Steva Komeh, an 18-year resident of the 1400 block of McCulloh St., which has six vacant houses among about 20. She said there are few violent crimes.

Blackwell and Komeh said their neighborhood has suffered because banks have been reluctant to lend money for home renovation and purchase.

They asserted that City Hall has neglected the community -- though the mayor's father, Murray Schmoke, lives there -- by not pumping in money for such amenities as brick sidewalks and historic street lights.

Also, in the past five years or so, local churches have opened a number of soup kitchens and other charitable programs that have brought more people to the area who commit property crimes, they said.

The neighborhood's first goal is to increase homeownership and eliminate blight. Two years ago, neighborhood leaders founded the nonprofit Marble Hill Development Corp., which is buying blighted properties for renovation.

Last month, the association began a program to get tough on vacant houses. Letters were mailed to absentee landlords asking them to securely board up houses and to reveal their plans for the properties.

Some changes are visible as a result of that campaign, Blackwell said, pointing out a vacant house in the 400 block of Mosher that has new boards over its doors.

Buyers have to renovate houses in keeping with historic preservation guidelines because most of the houses featured in the Black History Month Tour are in the Marble Hill Historic District, a seven-block area named for its marble steps. The city awarded the historic designation 11 years ago at the association's request.

In recent years, the neighborhood has seen an increasing number of tour buses come through the area that was once home to Furman L. Templeton Sr., a longtime executive director of the local Urban League; Violet Hill White, Baltimore's first African-American policewoman; and Harry S. Cummings, the first black City Council member and one of the first black graduates of the University of Maryland Law School.

Besides history, Marble Hill boasts some of the best housing values in the city with large three- to five-bedroom houses selling for $35,000 to $65,000, Blackwell said. Such amenities as hardwood floors, marble entry ways and decorative brick work are standard features in most of the houses.

The neighborhood also is in walking distance to many downtown offices, attractions, light rail and the subway.

"It takes a certain type of person who enjoys inner-city living to live here," said Blackwell. "We're looking for empty-nesters, young professionals, members of the gay community. ... People who are willing to make a commitment to stabilize a neighborhood."

Pub Date: 2/21/97

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