The former White Tower hamburger shop with the familiar white enamel exterior looked just the way Rodney Barnes remembered it.
Inside, the original orange-topped chrome stools lined up at the Formica counter. An old sign outside advertised pancakes, eggs and coffee. But the griddle at the 1940s-style diner had been cold for nearly a year, since the last White Tower in Baltimore closed.
On Friday, coffee brewed in the stainless steel urns once again. Barnes, 30, has transformed the Erdman Avenue eatery of his childhood into one where his own children help out. At Jammers, he's serving hoagies, Philadelphia-style, and steamed crabs, Baltimore-style.
For Barnes, it's more than nostalgia. He is among a handful of new merchants in Northeast Baltimore's Belair-Edison neighborhood betting on the reversal of a decades-long trend that has driven customers from city sidewalks to suburban strips and malls and left local businesses languishing.
To Barnes, who used to run a hoagie shop in Virginia, the business also represents a chance to give something back to Belair-Edison. The neighborhood of 6,500 rowhouses gave him memories, of Boy Scouts, paper routes and role models, and a place to come back to for family and old schoolmates.
"I've been looking for a good location for a long time," Barnes said. "This building's been around forever. It's always been a restaurant, and it did well. We went after it."
Merchants and others hoping to revitalize the five-block-by-two-block district of 100 businesses along Belair Road and Erdman Avenue see the White Tower's reincarnation as a sign of things to come.
Since January, several businesses have opened or made plans to open, among them a bakery, an insurance agency, a lounge and cafe, a grocery and carryout and a beauty supply store. Last year, a Food Depot grocery opened on Belair Road, and Rite Aid expanded.
Several banks, including Harbor Bank and Atlantic Federal, as well as La Fontaine Bleu Catering are among older businesses that provide stability.
"People are recognizing there is a lot of money to be spent in this neighborhood," said Daniel Klocke, business development coordinator for Belair-Edison Housing Service Inc. The neighborhood has a median household income of $33,000.
But before January, a neighborhood that once had at least three bakeries had "thousands of homes and no bakery, no place to buy fresh bread," said George Hatzigeorgalis, a former owner of bakeries in Dundalk and Harford County. At the end of January, he opened George's Bakery in the 3500 block of Belair Road. He lives above the shop.
"Who knows? It might go back to the good old days of mom-and-pop shops," said Hatzigeorgalis, who looked for a site after returning to Baltimore from living in his native Greece for a few years. "These last two months make me believe I will be successful," he said. "I see these businesses coming up again. The neighborhood is going to wake up again over here, and that's why I've invested my money."
The new business openings come at a time when the efforts of the Belair-Edison housing group, city officials and local merchants have begun to converge. And the openings come less than a year after the city beefed up a commercial revitalization program known as the Business Assistance Group, hoping to turn 60 city business districts into shopping hubs.
At the Belair-Edison Housing Service, Klocke recently came on board to handle business development. He is helping merchants organize the area's first merchants association. He's also coordinating efforts between business owners and city officials, who are hiring contractors to make improvements such as increasing lighting, installing benches, planting trees, replacing signs and repainting crosswalks, through $150,000 in city grants and general obligation bonds.
More recently, Klocke has turned his attention to recruiting businesses. The neighborhood, with available space ranging from 700 square feet to 4,000 square feet, could use a shoe store, video store, family restaurant, private mailing service and more professionals, such as accountants. He's also trying to help businesses market to residents.
"A lot of folks tend to go to the huge malls and specialty shops in the suburbs," Klocke said. "They don't realize [they have] access to stores in the neighborhood."
The city has been wrestling with what has long been a broader urban problem as well.
Since last year, LeRoy Adams Jr., head of the Business Assistance Group, and four field coordinators have been working on similar issues in many of the city's business districts. The field coordinators work out of nine neighborhood service centers, situated in each police district, where city workers specializing in human services, health, police, public works, housing and other areas help residents solve problems.