Black enclaves no longer shunned

Far-flung settlements get needed services after years of neglect

April 13, 1999|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

It is a land tamed by black hands. Generations ago, the men of Loreley yanked stumps from the earth with pick and shovel, with rope and a horse -- breaking their backs to turn a mosquito-infested tract of clay into one of Baltimore County's little-known but enduring African-American communities.

"They were just determined, determined people," said Joseph Williams, 60, who remembers watching his grandfather clear land in the northeastern Baltimore County community. "They made sure that we got property, that we got land when we grew up."

In those days, unwritten government policies forced African-Americans to improve their communities themselves.

Over the past decade, efforts have been aimed at improving the black communities inside the Beltway, such as controlling chronic flooding in Halethorpe or upgrading housing stock in east Towson.

But officials say the county's far-flung black settlements -- like Loreley, which is finally getting a sewer line -- also shouldn't be ignored.

"There are still enclaves of people who need assistance and need help," said Arnold F. "Pat" Keller, the county's planning director. "If they've been historically overlooked, we need to get on the stick."

Baltimore County's rural black communities are not easy to find.

Some are scattered collections of houses, often on dead-end roads, that would go unnoticed if not for small clues, such as a sign for an African Methodist Episcopal church. Many were founded by descendants of slaves who worked in metal foundries or in the fields.

Loreley is an isolated neighborhood of about 15 bungalows, ranch houses and mobile homes in a clearing reachable from Pulaski Highway by a single public road. The community is next to a county landfill, bordered by Gunpowder Falls and its state park.

Residents, most of them members of an extended family, say their forefathers worked on a large farm in the area. Old-timers recall that electricity didn't come to Loreley until the 1940s. The one road -- then a narrow band of dirt -- wasn't paved until the 1950s.

A decade ago, residents drank from wells -- and worried that the water was tainted by the landfill.

"I had heard somebody say that all they needed to do is put a little bleach in their wells and they should be able to get along just fine with the existing water," recalled Lenwood Johnson, the county government's liaison to black communities. "But you don't hear that kind of talk now."

With Williams leading the way, the residents persuaded the county to lay pipes to carry public water.

The dense soil in their community can no longer support their septic systems. Williams remains uncertain that blacks get their fair share of tax dollars, but he has learned to work within the government's system. The sewer lines are the latest result.

"Sometimes I think back to some of the people who are gone," Williams said. "They said, `You'll never get water back here.' I wonder what they'd say now?"

Changing attitudes

To see how attitudes have changed in Baltimore County, consider: Barely 40 years ago, there was talk of addressing a "Negro problem" in the county seat by relocating nearly 700 black residents of east Towson to an area near what is now the Carver Center for Arts and Technology.

A steep hill to the south and west, York Road to the east and the soon-to-be-built Beltway to the north would enclose the neighborhood, "thus minimizing the amount of contact that this area's residents would have with those of the surrounding neighborhoods," an academic at the State Teacher's College in Towson (now Towson University) wrote in his 1953 doctoral dissertation.

In his paper, the author acknowledged assistance he'd received from the director of the county planning commission.

In the 1950s and 1960s, as "white flight" from Baltimore City fueled the suburban boom, elected county officials pursued road projects and zoning changes that disrupted black communities.

Projects for the black community were unpopular, said former county executive Theodore G. Venetoulis, who was elected in 1974.

"You could not talk about urban renewal in Baltimore County because it had an urban connotation," he said. His solution was to call the process "revitalization."

Longtime county officials say Venetoulis' efforts to improve east Towson with new sidewalks, curbs and gutters helped forge a new attitude toward black enclaves.

By 1979, the county's master plan, for the first time, noted substandard housing conditions in black communities. A decade later, a new master plan stated an intention to help preserve the county's 40 historic black settlements.

A county survey found black community leaders were concerned about deteriorating housing, contaminated wells, and a lack of public improvements such as sidewalks and storm drains.

Some said their communities were threatened by "encroachment" from new, expensive housing that caused assessments and property taxes to rise.

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