Walbrook Junction activist backs effort to raze, redevelop two abandoned houses Site would become home for recovering addicts

March 02, 1997|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Her fight to make Walbrook Junction a healthy place for children has gripped Georgine Edgerton so long that she was elevated last year to the Baltimore Women's Hall of Fame.

But even at 71, this is no time to quit.

Edgerton is now talking up the Light Street Housing Corp., a private, nonprofit provider of affordable housing, to her neighbors in West Baltimore. The agency wants to build an anti-drug center to replace two abandoned houses that have drawn the homeless, addicts, prostitutes, arsonists, rats and neighbors' scorn.

The buildings at Clifton Avenue and Edgewood Street, opposite Walbrook High School, are in a neighborhood of homeowners where a church displays a large stop sign out front that reads: "Stop the violence. Stop the killing."

The plan is to buy and raze 3500 and 3502 Clifton Ave. and put up a transitional home for 28 to 30 recovering drug addicts who would pay rent, called "program fees," to make the center self-sustaining.

Former substance abusers would sign contracts pledging to stay off drugs or alcohol and work for a living -- not unusual demands made of recovering addicts. A twist is that they would also have to promise to act as mentors for students at Walbrook High School.

The home is still a $1.4 million dream in need of almost $1 million. But funding appears likely from public and private sources, and the plan has widespread backing in Mount Holly and other parts of Greater Walbrook Junction, supporters said.

"This project is wonderful," said Edgerton, who has been president of the Mount Holly Improvement Association for 20 years. She is known as "the mayor of Walbrook" when people aren't calling her "Grandma," "Auntie," "Mother" and "Grandmother Edgerton."

She was picking up trash as she talked, standing near the old houses two blocks from her home.

"The buildings are such an eyesore," she said. "If they can get rid of that mess and put up a new home and program, it will improve our life in Walbrook."

To Dr. Marilyn E. Rondeau, Walbrook principal, "it's a great idea. Many spoke in favor of the rehab center at a community meeting. It'll sustain the area, help our students learn."

Brook Dickerson, a Light Street staffer, knocked on area doors in July and found that 40 of 45 residents in the neighborhood of several thousand favored the project. A typical comment, according to Dickerson: "Super. It will improve the neighborhood." Another resident said: "I'm concerned. I don't know these guys; they're not from Walbrook."

Leon H. Carr III, executive director of African American Men on a Mission, which provides mentors for Walbrook students two nights a week, said: "There's hope in this. Many kids need help behavior problems, studies. We can use any volunteers."

Officer Robert L. Ortt said, "Thank God." The police officer has walked the Walbrook beat for three years and did a similar turn there 20 years ago.

"Those corner buildings," he said, "are so torn up inside and rat-infested." The people in the area deserve better, he added.

If the dream has an author, it's Ninia Baehr, the Light Street development director, who has worked with African American Men on a Mission and is aware of Walbrook needs.

"This is my baby," she said. "What's wonderful about 'The Walbrook Sustainability Project' is everyone here embraced it, unlike the usual controversy. It stabilizes the property, the abusers, people in the community."

Officials hope the building and its program will be ready by summer 1998. That is optimistic because the considerable financing from foundations and the city still is awaited, acknowledged M. Gregory Cantori, executive director of Light Street. "But we're very close with much of this funding."

African American Men owns 3500 Clifton Ave., and Light Street is buying 3502, Cantori said. The privately owned properties have been vacant at least six years.

Light Street's work in affordable housing for recovering addicts is best known in South Baltimore. Its Mount Holly dream started with friendships. Cantori knows Edgerton. Baehr knows Carr and Kenneth Coleman, president of African American Men, which would take over the project after it starts.

To start the planning, four nonprofit sources and others have provided $55,000. Of those four, the Abell Foundation donated $27,500; the Blaustein Family Fund for Basic Human Needs of the Baltimore Community Foundation, $10,000; a New York foundation, the Center on Crime, Communities and Culture of the Open Society Institute, $10,000; and the Speer Fund, $1,000.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has committed $295,000 for construction and program start-up expenses through the city's Office of Homeless Services. Another $33,000 came from Maryland Affordable Housing Trust.

More will have a hand in the Walbrook center, Cantori said.

South Baltimore Station, directed by Tim Williams, and 15 of its recovering residents held a retreat to discuss the Walbrook project, which would draw residents from that and other substance abuse programs.

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