Breaking bread, forging ties Union Square sees dinners as way to unite, improve community

March 30, 1997|By Marilyn McCraven | Marilyn McCraven,SUN STAFF

Just as the last bites of seafood and pasta primavera were washed down with Chablis, Ardebella Fox looked admiringly at the friendly faces around her at a recent neighborhood dinner and said: "This has been wonderful."

That also appeared to be the sentiment of the 60 or so Union Square residents busily chatting with their neighbors. The dinner is a monthly event that longtime resident Fox began last fall to help foster neighborliness and, eventually, community improvement.

"At a neighborhood meeting, you only get 25 people or so, but look how many people we have here tonight," Fox said, as she handed out name tags and collected the $6 fee for dinner at a local restaurant. "This is strictly social, no business here."

Some residents of H. L. Mencken's old neighborhood welcome the gatherings as a respite from the sometimes grinding nature of urban living in the middle-class enclave of 100-year-old townhouses in the heart of Southwest Baltimore. Also, the friendliness of the eclectic, interracial group reinforces why many residents have stayed when so many of their neighbors have fled, leaving the crime, grime and drug dealing those who stay fight to keep at bay.

Many residents, including a number of artists, are self-employed and relish the relatively low cost of housing and the luxury of space in the rambling multistory houses (some with carriage houses out back) that allow them to work from home. Almost all the residents interviewed said the neighborhood's proximity to downtown attractions is a key reason they stay in a city of 675,401 people that registered a net loss of 14,000 residents last year.

"What other neighborhood does something like this, where there are so many interesting people?" said Marjorie Gold, an art therapist and 10-year resident, surveying the diners.

Because of people such as Gold, the monthly dinners -- which some see as a suburban custom -- have resulted in spinoff events, including a yoga class and a women's group.

The most optimistic residents say such activities herald a revival of the beleaguered neighborhood that had a rush of gentrification in the '60s and '70s, followed by decline in the '80s when crack cocaine and its accompanying crime and degradation drove many residents out.

Crime is down

They point to a new sushi restaurant on Hollins Street, construction on nearby West Baltimore Street and other neighborhood improvements as examples of at least a modest upswing. Also, police report that area crime was down 43 percent last month, compared with a year ago.

Residents say these improvements came from recent initiatives by city government and residents doing such things as planting trees, volunteering to help schoolchildren and working to improve Hollins Market.

"I've seen it go from a time when people used to block off the street and have a party to the time people were afraid to come out of their houses," said Terry Smith, a steel worker and Pigtown community leader who frequents the Union Square dinners.

"Now it seems like the pendulum is swinging the other way," Smith said.

Still, residents want to see more police. The low point of the past several years was the January shooting that left 3-year-old James Smith III dead in a Hollins Market-area barbershop, they say.

"The neighborhood has clearly taken a tumble in recent years, but it clearly has possibilities of bouncing back," said Ellen Janes, assistant secretary for neighborhood revitalization in the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

Home improvements

A generation ago, Fox was among the urban pioneers who began buying up Union Square's townhouses and renovating them into showplaces. She and her husband, Melvin, have renovated 15 houses. Members of their neighborhood association demanded that the city invest in the area, adding historic streetlights, brick sidewalks and other amenities.

The group's members eagerly invited outsiders to see their homes, including an annual Christmas cookie tour and a summer garden walk. Money raised from those events helps support neighborhood improvement projects. And they have several functions just for residents, including an annual progressive dinner.

Last fall, feeling the neighbors' enthusiasm waning as winter neared, Ardebella Fox hit upon the idea for the dinner.

She decided that her sister's restaurant, Gypsy's Cafe, next to Hollins Market, was an ideal location for the meetings because it is in walking distance of most residents' homes. Besides, winter Monday nights are usually slow for business.

Response has been tremendous. Neighbors typically arrive about 6:30 p.m. the first Monday of every month for cocktails. By 7 p.m. on a recent night, a buffet table was crowded with bubbling pasta dishes, garlic bread and Caesar salad. At times the din in the low-ceilinged restaurant made it hard to hear people nearby.

The dinners have struck a chord with the largely professional crowd that relishes not having to cook dinner after a long day at the office.

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