East side making a comeback Revival: Once ignored, Baltimore County's eastern edge is gaining respect for its strong neighborhoods and newfound political clout.

March 23, 1998|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Not since the War of 1812, when a hearty ragtag army defeated the British at North Point, has there been such clamor of victory on Baltimore County's east side.

The area -- steeped in history and proud of an enduring blue-collar heritage -- is brimming with healthy signs of debate, change and long-missed attention from the county's political power center in Towson.

Last fall, persistent community associations helped defeat a plan for a $100 million NASCAR speedway near their homes. Another neighborhood group, skittish after the crash of a stealth fighter, demanded an end to aerobatics by jet aircraft during a popular Middle River air show -- and won.

In another long-fought battle, state officials elected to stop dumping spoil on Hart-Miller Island in the Chesapeake Bay.

And in Dundalk, long the butt of jokes, 400 residents are protesting the possibility of low-income housing at Hidden Cove apartments in West Inverness. They carried signs at a recent organized protest saying "Enough is enough" and "It's Dundalk, not Dumpdalk."

"Before, people just grumbled about such stuff," says Thomas ++ Lehner, president of the Bowleys Quarters Improvement Association. "But now, they are speaking up and are openly concerned about what is developing around them.

"They don't want profiteers and politicians deciding what goes up around their communities. And they see they can win some of these battles."

Adds Edwin F. Hale Sr., chairman of First Mariner Bank: "I was paranoid about my roots when I left Sparrows Point for the business world. But the east side is making a comeback because it never stopped fighting back."

Confidence is growing, partly because residents see a responsive government in Towson.

Over the past four years, $146 million in county funds -- the most in county history -- has been funneled into projects from Dundalk to Middle River, including roads and alleys, new schools and beautification programs.

Unlike previous administrations that concentrated on building town centers in Owings Mills and White Marsh, County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger has devoted more energy and funding to older neighborhoods such as Catonsville, Towson and the east side.

He has broadened the Community Conservation concept begun former Executive Roger B. Hayden during tight budgetary times.

And to help develop the county's vast shoreline, Ruppersberger says he will, if re-elected this fall, hire a full-time staff member to plan a waterfront development strategy. Younger couples already have started buying waterfront shacks and converting them into attractive homes.

For many, the message from Towson has been encouraging.

Something to look forward to

"They are going to tear down the Riverdale apartments, the streetscape is coming on Eastern Boulevard, Route 43 will be extended to Eastern Boulevard," says Laura Hanley, president of the Middlesex Community Association, where 1,100 homes are located. "Everyone feels it's something to look forward to, finally."

Guy Shaneybrook, an east side pioneer who renovated a property on Galloway Creek, feels the area is slowly changing its image.

"The east side used to be the dumping ground of the county, but it's changing because the local improvement associations have taken more responsibility, challenging the government, the old liners," says Shaneybrook, a real estate appraiser. "And the new blood coming in want to protect their investments. That's a good sign."

Another Ruppersberger focus is to close down and demolish two east side apartment complexes: Riverdale and Chesapeake Village, on Dark Head Cove. Part of Tidewater Village, a Chase development, will be torn down for a park.

There are skeptics, however.

"There was more of a zeal in the beginning of the [Ruppersberger] administration," says Susan Widerman, president of the Walnut Grove Neighborhood Association. "If you know who to call in Towson, you can get things done. But that's it."

Alfred Clasing, an organizer of the Back River Neck Community Association, said Ruppersberger has "done a good job" as executive but "there's more talk than action" from county government.

Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat, attends up to three community meetings a week and sees "things looking up immensely. But people want immediate results and in their neighborhoods. The problems like Riverdale and crime took decades to develop and will take a while to erase."

Still some friction

Residents also have discovered the power of their neighborhood groups forging new alliances -- and that friction still exists.

After the stealth crash last year, Lehner, a carpenter and former Peace Corps worker in Africa, led a charge to get jet aerobatics banned from the show. Promoters eventually agreed to display jets on the ground.

"It seems any time you discuss change, some people throw up the constant rhetoric, the threat, of Moving To Opportunity or Section 8 housing," Lehner says, invoking the code words for low-income housing.

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