A good feeling in Charles Village

City: Residents find the strength in numbers to fix problems and embrace urban living.

June 05, 1999|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Michael W. Howard examines a Baltimore map and sees its heart: Charles Village.

Clara King moved across the country to live in Baltimore, and has found her calling as a community activist in South Charles Village.

Halle Van der Gaag first lived in Charles Village as a Goucher College student, and now, the mother of two young children is determined to make her community a magnet for other parents.

This weekend, all three will celebrate -- and of course, take part in -- the Charles Village Festival, a two-day party that expands annually in proportion to thecommunity's renewed sense of cohesion and purpose.

The festival, dedicated to the children of Charles Village, is a two-day party featuring a zany parade, run, games, garden walk, an overnight Urban Campout, crafts and music. It is also a reflection of faith in the community, says filmmaker Steve Yeager, who grew up in Charles Village and bought a home there three years ago.

"We could be picking up trash, cleaning out the gutters -- we do that constantly throughout the year. But once a year you have a chance to sit back and celebrate community," says Charles Village stalwart Linda Brown Rivelis, who lives and works in the neighborhood.

"This is what this festival weekend is all about," Rivelis says. "We need a chance as a community to laugh and be with each other and say, `Job well done.' "

The job Rivelis refers to is the revitalization of Charles Village itself after a scary slump. Blessed with a central location and neighbors like Johns Hopkins University and Union Memorial Hospital, the Victorian neighborhood of roughly 14,000 has long withstood corrosive city ills.

But in the early 1990s, crime, grime and apathy seemed to be getting the best of it, and "for sale" signs popped up by the dozens.

Rivelis and others responded by creating a benefits district -- covering Howard Street over to Greenmount Avenue and from 20th Street up to 33rd -- that taxed Charles Village residents for additional security guards and sanitation workers.

The district, launched in 1995 and fortified by Neighborhood Walkers and block watch programs, has cut crime in half, the Charles Village Civic Association recently reported.

Building on this momentum, Charles Villagers have drawn together for other causes, including the conversion of a former branch of the Enoch Pratt Library in the 2500 block of St. Paul Street into a community learning center.

New zoning regulations should allow Charles Village to blossom as a commercial center befitting its proximity to Johns Hopkins. The renovation of the Astor Court, a vacant apartment building at the southwest corner of St. Paul and 25th streets, will supply young teachers with affordable housing, and is intended to give the blighted neighborhood a boost.

The Charles Village Centennial Celebration in 1997, a "Painted Ladies" competition that awards brightly painted homes and a monthly street party are other efforts to bolster the neighborhood's self-esteem and help people become better acquainted.

Not all efforts are successful. Preservationists recently lost the battle to save the facades of several Victorian buildings on 25th Street where a CVS pharmacy will open. And now, residents are tackling the controversial issue of parking; undoubtedly, the solutions will not appease everybody.

But win or lose, Charles Villagers say they have learned a valuable lesson about community, says Edward Hargadon, co-founder of the neighborhood's recreation league and its "Volunteer of the Decade."

Hargadon and colleagues have learned not to rely on elected officials, but the electorate itself, to get the job done. "What we've really done is take control ... of our destiny," says Hargadon, the principal counsel for the Maryland Department of Transportation, who will be patrolling Wyman Park at tonight's Urban Campout. "We truly have looked at problems any urban community has faced, [and realized] we can't look outside of ourselves to get solutions. We have to do it ourselves."

It's process as much as accomplishment that forms community, says longtime Charles Villager Kent Waters. "One of the things that brought the community together was this benefits district hassle," he says. "Either you were for or you were against it. [But] a lot of people I think got to know each other, whether they approved or not. ... As long as people are interested and actually take positions, then you've got a community rather than just a place to live."

As beautiful as it is, living in Charles Village would be pointless without such group efforts, says Rivelis, a resident since 1990 and president of Campaign Consultation Inc. "If there weren't people who were committed to it, we wouldn't be here."

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