Abell plan may be start of Patterson Park's revival

October 18, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

MAYBE NOW they begin to stop the bleeding around Patterson Park. Who can tell? Maybe now the energy returns to Eastern Avenue, and the neighborhood shops begin to show life again, and maybe now Southeast Baltimore returns to the old days, when finally moving out of your parents' house meant finding an available rowhouse on the same block, instead of a townhouse in distant suburbia.

The Abell Foundation thinks it can begin to make some of these things happen. Maybe they're right. Maybe they can undo a quarter-century of political neglect and murderous housing policies that transformed one of the city's most stable communities into one with all of its vulnerabilities showing.

The foundation's new plan, announced last week, ensures that home owners -- and those wishing to buy a home in the area -- won't have to worry about losing money if they decide to sell. The foundation will reimburse any difference between assessed value and actual sales price. The catch: Owners have to agree to stick around for at least five years.

Maybe it can work. Maybe one day you can walk through Patterson Park after dark again, and maybe the dope dealers will haunt some other geography. Home ownership has a way of bringing pride to a place.

Maybe the lines return to Haussner's Restaurant the way they did when people would stand outside in the cold and knew the wait was worth it. And maybe there's so much new money that begins to move through the neighborhood that somebody looks at the old, abandoned Esskay plant and remembers all the people who worked there, and all the paychecks that once fueled life throughout this neighborhood, and figures, there's gotta be a way to bring this place back to some kind of profitable life.

Every time somebody moves out of this area, the city loses a piece of its soul. Southeast Baltimore is Bawlamer. It's all the beloved cliches, the Upper Chesapeake adenoidal accent, the town's image of itself with the shirtsleeves rolled up and the families that never come undone.

Except that, for a couple of decades now, the extended family -- the tight little streets extending from Patterson Park -- has been breaking up painfully. Problems feed on each other. The drug traffic feeds a variety of crimes which make people look toward suburbia. Renters move in, some of whom take no care of the property or the streets and alleys.

Two years ago, a series in this newspaper detailed ruinous cases of overflowing trash, of rats, of crumbling housing. Some traced it to a heavy influx of Section 8 tenants, more than 700 families given Housing Authority rental certificates worth up to $600 a month toward their rent. In a treacherous move by housing officials, these families were all settled into a 1-square-mile area east of Johns Hopkins Hospital and north of Patterson Park.

"A body blow," was how one former Highlandtown businessman described the move last week. He had a sandwich business there for nearly two decades. "The last five or six years," he said, "my business went down 30 percent. Nobody wanted to come out in the street at night."

Maybe the Abell plan begins to turn this around. Maybe the pride begins to return to an area where good things are already happening to the old Patterson Theatre -- conversion to art lofts and a 100-seat auditorium -- and some old, vacant stores.

Last spring, a survey by the East Baltimore Guide found many residents "feel better than they have in years about the neighborhood's future."

Maybe the Abell plan keeps the energy alive. East Baltimore's on a roll. Nearby Canton doesn't know how to count all the yuppie money moving in. Fells Point is the weekend retreat for kids from every county looking at the neighborhood's funkiness and wondering why their dweeb folks ever had to move to suburbia.

Maybe Patterson Park begins to come back. The mid-century suburban exodus that hit so many parts of the city was late arriving here. There's still a foundation that resembles what came before: acres of rowhouses, corner saloons that are suburbia's version of club basements, churches that are emotional extensions of families, and families that have stayed here over generations.

For some years now, the exodus has stalled -- not because people wanted to stay, but because they couldn't get a decent price for their homes. And so the panic deepened: Not only would the neighborhood continue to decay, but there would be no money to escape.

The Abell plan says: Let's calm down. If homeowners will have faith in the neighborhood, the money will be there. Confidence builds on itself. Nobody has to imagine everyone else is running and they'll be the last family left behind.

Maybe this is a turning point. Maybe the fear goes away, and maybe one day young people stay in the park again after dark. Maybe the energy returns to Eastern Avenue, and the money, too. Give the thinkers at the Abell Foundation a tip of the hat.

Maybe now they begin to stop the bleeding.

Pub Date: 10/18/98

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