Fairfield: Money for improvements is finally on the way, but most of the people are already gone.

A PLACE APART

March 09, 1997|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

Until 1976 you needed an outhouse to live in some of the homes down here in Fairfield, and at times the smell overpowered even the drifting stench of chemical fumes, which in those days could slow-burn a pair of nylons right off the clothesline.

But at least then there were a few hundred neighbors to talk to.

Now the population of this southern Baltimore community is down to about a dozen families within a few square blocks, and there is still little evidence of city services most neighborhoods take for granted. Streets are cratered and curbless, when they're paved at all. Pipes leak and sputter. Weeds grow high in empty lots between sagging, boarded homes.

Somewhere nearby is the waterfront, but the only view is of trucking fleets and giant oil tanks, of scrapyards and shipping terminals. With its one small church and its occasional garden, shrinking Fairfield is a fading rural birthmark upon the grimy face of industry.

Now, money and attention are at last on their way, as part of the $100 million effort to enliven Baltimore's empowerment zone. Help is also due from recent "brownfields" legislation authorizing the cleanup of contaminated industrial sites.

But most of the money for Fairfield will be spent to attract companies, not residents. And even though some longtime problems such as potholes and dumped junk will finally be addressed, the investment's success could lead to the end of Fairfield as a place to live.

It's an irony not lost on residents such as Jennie Fincher, 94. She has spent most of her life here, devoting entire decades to asking for help that rarely came.

"I just can't see why people living in a community cannot have the things that other people are used to having," she said on a recent morning in the dimness of her dining room.

The years and small accidents of old age have finally caught up with Fincher, according to her grandson. Her memory often lapses, and the woman once known as Fairfield's "mayor" sometimes speaks of long-gone churches and neighbors as if they were still just around the corner.

But when the subject of the city's neglect arises, the old anger is as fresh as ever, and the old complaints still apply.

"The city says, 'Well, we can't do this,' but the city can do anything they want," she said, shaking her head with the vigor of an indignant teen.

"You pay taxes all of your life and will even pay some when you die, and they say they can't do anything for you."

Industrial neighbors such as Ian Neuman, an executive with the nearby Abbey Drum Co., sympathize with residents.

"We kiddingly call this place, 'The Land the City Forgot,' " said Neuman, whose company relocated to the neighborhood's old Victory School building in 1995.

Until recently Neuman was a member of the empowerment zone's oversight board, and he hopes other businesses will follow Abbey into the community, filling vacant lots and bringing jobs and revenue.

He believes any improvements, no matter whom they're intended to help, will make life easier for residents, although he does wonder why anyone would stay in a place dominated for so long by chemical plants and oil terminals.

People urged to leave

City officials have wondered the same thing for years.

They've been encouraging people to give up on Fairfield since 1966, when Baltimore's urban renewal agency recommended that every resident be relocated.

In those days the air was so foul from chemical fumes that "at night you couldn't even open your window," former resident Herbert Mason recalled. "You couldn't breathe."

Neuman remembered his father taking him to the area in 1960, when he was 10. "The air was horrendous," he said. "You could almost taste it."

Since then, despite the overdue installation of sewer lines in 1976, the city has officially regarded the place as a dying neighborhood, one that would never be a high priority for residential improvements.

But by the time the city made that decision, some Fairfield residents had already grown attached to the sublime charms that, for them, outweighed even industrial blight and municipal neglect.

"At one time it was one of the best places you'd want to live," said former resident Warrenetta Johnson.

Isolation and low crime

Oddly, some of the attraction seems to come from the same abundance of industry that has always threatened to literally and figuratively suffocate the place.

All those oil tanks and scrap heaps, it seems, worked almost as effectively as the security fence of a gated community, keeping crime levels low and allowing residents to feel isolated from the city that lies only minutes beyond their doorsteps.

Fairfield has also never completely lost its rural feel, especially in summer, when vegetable gardens and the trees lining a few streets remind one of the days long ago when it was the site of farms and orchards.

A canning factory run by the Wagner family just south of Fairfield was one of the first major industries to come to the area early in the century.

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