There is just no getting around it. "The Avenue" isn't what it used to be, with its boarded-up storefronts, pawn shops and empty office buildings.
"The Avenue" in this case is Highlandtown's Eastern Avenue in Southeast Baltimore. It was once the community's bustling Main Street - but like many a city neighborhood, it has deteriorated.
"It's a combination of all the shopping malls, like the one in White Marsh, and people leaving the city," says Kenneth Strong, the executive director for Southeast Development Inc., explaining the shuttered businesses.
"It's very depressing to see so many vacant buildings," he says.
According to the 1990 census, 7,112 people call Highlandtown home. It's a decline of 10 percent from the previous decade.
But wait. Don't count "The Avenue" and Highlandtown out. Scattered among the boarded-up buildings are signs of rejuvenation. A new Highlandtown Cultural Center will soon open in what used to be the Patterson Theater.
The boarded-up, desolate-looking Grand Theater has recently been purchased by SDI, and talks are under way on how to best make use of it for the community.
Some businesses have bright awnings over doorways. And there will be more sprucing-up with help from a combination of federal, state and city funds.
For a few years, there has been talk about the renewal of Highlandtown. "We've crossed the threshold now," Strong says. SDI and the Highlandtown Merchants Association have been sppearheading the community's renewal efforts.
The road back
This Sunday, the Highlandtown Fall Fest will mark a milestone in the community's renewal effort. This year's festival, from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., will celebrate the fact that four large "anchor" buildings in the community will no longer be empty.
There will be music by the Baltimore band Mambo Combo (4 p.m. to 6 p.m.) and others. Entertainment also includes cartoonist Tom Chalkley, who will be doing sketches, and Nicolo the Ypsey juggler. Various craftspeople with their wares on sale will be there.
There will be carnival rides, a skateboard contest and an "artcar/artbike" row, too.
Politicians will be making an appearance. It's an election year, after all.
"At 3 p.m. in the middle of the fall festival, we are going to have [Gov.] Parris Glendening, [Sen.] Barbara Mikulski, [Rep.] Ben Cardin, [Del.] Perry Sfikas, [Del.] Carolyn Krysiak, [Housing Commissioner] Daniel Henson," Strong says. "The master of ceremonies will be Richard Sandza from the Highlandtown Merchants Association." Sandza is also publisher of The East Baltimore Guide.
"I am thrilled they will all be at the same place at the same time," Strong says.
For the occasion, a ribbon will be stretched across Eastern Avenue.
"It's a great morale booster that we are cutting the ribbon together," Strong says. The ribbon-cutting will be held in front of the Irvins Department Store building at 3428 Eastern Ave.
The ribbon-cutting is to celebrate the rehabilitation of the four "anchor" buildings, Strong says.
To the untrained eye, there is still much work to be done in the community, but that will come in time, Strong says.
Smaller businesses can receive matching funds to renovate and improve the facades of their buildings. And a few long-time businesses, such as Haussner's Restaurant, have never abandoned the community and continue to thrive.
The four "anchor" buildings that will be rehabilitated are the old Irvins Department Store, which will house offices, including SDI; the Grand Theater; Patterson Theater; and a building that was once a beauty academy.
The Grand Theater is on Conkling Street near Eastern Avenue. It belongs to Southeast Development Inc., Strong says.
The Patterson Theater is on the corner of Eastern Avenue and East Avenue. It will become the Patterson Cultural Center, which will house artists' studios, galleries and cafes, says Megan Hamilton, program director for the Fells Point Creative Alliance.
The Fells Point Creative Alliance, which will manage the Patterson Cultural Center, is a membership organization that promotes the arts and humanities in Southeast Baltimore. The center is scheduled to open in February.
The old beauty academy building at Eastern Avenue and Clinton Street will become the Southeast Teen Academy. It will be a community center where teens can both improve academic skills and enjoy recreational activities.
"We realized, due to a survey, that teen-agers comprise about 8,000 in numbers, and they were the most underserved in population," says Sister Bobby English, who was instrumental in getting the project off the ground. "We tried to address that dire statistic," she says.
"We realize no single center can serve all those teen-agers, but this will be a hub where some activities take place and radiate out," Sister English says.
The center will open before the end of the year, she says.
The Southeast Baltimore neighborhood borders bustling Canton, which is in the midst of a renaissance. (A Bibelot book store and Donna's restaurant are the newest establishments scheduled to open there.)
Highlandtown, says Strong, is a nice alternative for those who like the area but can't afford Canton prices.
Strong is hoping the festival and, particularly, the community's renewal effort will bring out prospective homebuyers and business owners.
"We recognized we needed to do something big," Strong says.
What: Highlandtown Fall Fest
When: Sunday, 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m.
Where: Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown
Pub Date: 10/15/98