Bolton Hill's struggle for stable community Liquor store controversy: At issue is neighborhood's vulnerability as decay around it spreads.

October 14, 1998

IN ITS picturesque 19th-century atmosphere, Bolton Hill feels like Baltimore's Georgetown, without the crowds.

But there is one other significant difference: Unlike Georgetown, Bolton Hill continues to battle to achieve stability. That's why many residents are trying to get rid of Chang's Mart, a liquor and convenience store at Eutaw Place and Wilson Street.

They don't like the store's clients who are so poor (or dependent on drink) that they buy liquor by the miniature bottle and beer by the container. To Bolton Hill homeowners, Chang's presents an image and litter problem. Because the store has been fined for selling liquor to minors, residents tend to link its patrons to other nefarious activity nearby, including prostitution and drug trafficking.

Many Baltimore neighborhoods blame low-end liquor and convenience stores for decline, particularly trash and loitering. Unless owners cooperate, residents' protests usually fail to produce corrective action by police or liquor and zoning regulators. Chang's would be well-advised to improve relations with its neighbors.

It is tempting to see the row over Chang's strictly as a clash of income levels and lifestyles, with some racial overtones. The underlying reason for residents' concerns, however, seems to be anxiety over their emotional and financial investment in Bolton Hill. They are worried -- and have reason to worry -- about the neighborhood's future.

In the past five years, rapid deterioration along Druid Hill Avenue and McCulloh Street has brought decay to the doorstep of Bolton Hill. Once-stable streets of homeowners are pockmarked by abandoned rowhouses. As a consequence, restoration along Madison Avenue has slowed and the first signs of abandonment are evident on Eutaw Place, a landscaped boulevard reminiscent of Paris.

Meanwhile, once-elegant Reservoir Hill, just across North Avenue, is crumbling. Many rowhouse blocks along its side streets are in such bad shape that demolition is the only answer.

Bolton Hill has battled delapidation in the past. After World War II, a revolving loan fund was used to buy rundown rooming houses and return them to single-family use. Longtime area residents still can name the "good" and "bad" blocks. If Bolton Hill is thriving today, it is a result of activists' unflagging vigilance. To protect residences, they have fought to keep retail outlets to a minimum, leading to criticism that the community is antiseptic.

With 84 Victorian-influenced townhouses to be built at Eutaw Place and North Avenue and two major restoration projects planned, Bolton Hill may be on the upswing. But deterioration on the community's fringes must be stopped. Otherwise, Bolton Hill will continue to be a middle-class island in a rising sea of hopelessness and poverty.

Pub Date: 10/14/98

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