Specter of outsider control spurs outcry in Greektown Objections: Residents oppose an umbrella group for Upper Fells Point to Bayview.

December 26, 1997|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

A proposal to spruce up the neighborhoods that border Eastern Avenue, from Dundalk to Fells Point, should have pleased people who live and work in the area. But in Greektown, where English is seldom spoken and the scent of souvlaki fills the air, it caused an outcry.

Along the narrow brick streets that lie in the shadow of Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, neighbors are meeting in specialty shops with Old World charm to debate the merits of a plan proposed by Southeast Development Inc. (SDI), a nonprofit organization.

The plan calls for creation of an umbrella group -- tentatively called the Eastern Avenue Partnership -- which would use a community development corporation (CDC) to renovate the Upper Fells Point, Highlandtown and Greektown/Bayview communities.

Leaders in the small Greektown neighborhood fear the development corporation would shift local decision-making to "xenos" -- outsiders -- and divert money earmarked for them to other areas. It is a sensitive issue in a community where the local church has invested more than $700,000 in the neighborhood and fears being told what to do with the property it purchased.

"With no disrespect to anyone, I don't think we need the CDC or SDI," said George G. Perdikakis, president of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church on Ponca Street, in the heart of Greektown.

"We are a very capable community," Perdikakis said. "We can take care of ourselves."

With the prospect of a fight on their hands, the residents and entrepreneurs of Greektown are organizing. Members of St. Nicholas, where Baltimoreans of Greek origin have worshiped for more than 40 years, are entertaining thoughts of forming a community advisory board to oversee development in the area.

The 15-member church council has hired a Chicago architect to draw plans for the three rowhouses and grocery store that the church recently purchased, in hopes of finding a way to build a Byzantine-style house of worship to accommodate St. Nicholas' growing parish.

The advisory board, church leaders say, would be an example of true Athenian democracy, with representatives elected from the neighborhood.

"The people who are elected to the board would make decisions about how to spend any grant money or other funds that Greektown receives," Perdikakis said. "People who live as far west as Upper Fells Point shouldn't be making decisions for us."

Organizers of the Eastern Avenue Partnership insist the development corporation would not overshadow the church or any local group and question the wisdom of Greektown going it alone.

"The partnership is not meant to eliminate any local organizations," said Ken Strong, executive director of SDI. "Its purpose is to provide a forum for sharing information and for taking the lead on activities that benefit all of the communities along Eastern Avenue."

Those activities would include facade improvements in Highlandtown, renovation of vacant properties in Upper Fells Point and implementation of a master plan for the Greektown/Bayview community.

The $26,000 master plan is a work in progress, according to Allison Platt of the Baltimore-based Allison Platt & Associates. Platt was hired by the Greektown/Bayview Development Initiative about a year ago to draft a comprehensive revitalization plan for the area. The plan, funded by Hopkins and developed during several community meetings, has won broad-based support in the Bayview area and has been praised by some in Greektown.

"We were very impressed by the plan, but we feel other issues -- such as enforcement of housing codes, security and sanitation -- need to be addressed immediately, before we talk about planting trees and building fancy brick sidewalks," said Helen Johns, a longtime resident of Greektown and member of St. Nicholas.

"In a nutshell, this is a vibrant community, one of the city's last ethnic neighborhoods," she said. "We want to preserve that. But there's been an exodus from Greektown over the past 10 years. We need to put a stop to that. The only way to do it is to form a true partnership with the city and our neighbors to the east and west."

Members of the 15th Street Community Association, which represents Greektown residents who live between Lehigh and Umbra streets, said cleanup efforts are under way in the neighborhood. They criticized the church council for speaking out against the proposed CDC.

"Members of the church and church council shouldn't speak for the Greek community. Many of them don't live or work in the neighborhood," said Walter Hudson, president of the 15th Street Community Association. "They don't understand that the CDC would have the ability to get grants that they would not be able to obtain on their own."

According to the Rev. Manuel J. Burdusi, who grew up in Greektown and has been pastor of St. Nicholas for six years, a compromise will have to be reached between the church and its neighbors before any revitalization plan is implemented.

"We want to see Greektown become a tourist area, much like Fells Point or Little Italy," Burdusi said. "But the church and the people who live here must have a say in what happens. It seems the decisions are being taken out of the hands of the people and put into the hands of large corporations."

State Sen. Perry Sfikas, a Baltimore Democrat, will meet with members of the Greektown community next month to try to ease tensions in the neighborhood.

"I want to make it clear that each group involved in the partnership will be able to tailor their own revitalization plans to their own abilities and capabilities," Sfikas said. "If Greektown doesn't want a community development corporation, they don't have to have one."

Pub Date: 12/26/97

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