At exactly noon yesterday, Lester Jenkins turned his rented U-Haul away from the blue-painted rowhouse where he had lived the past 14 years and left Leo Street behind, without a tear or a glance back. "Goodbye to the past," he said, passing three oil tank farms and a herbicide factory.
Four minutes later, the 45-year-old plumber parked in front of his new home and said hello to his future: a well-maintained, two-bedroom rowhouse in Brooklyn, less than two miles west.
"This new world is beautiful, ain't it?" he said, opening the truck full of boxes and mattresses and mementos, and letting off three canisters of bug spray before shutting the door quickly again. "We'll wait a couple of hours before unloading the truck. I don't want any of those Wagner's Point roaches coming into the new place with me."
With that, Jenkins, his wife, Dawn, and their three children became the first family to pack up and leave the tiny southern Baltimore neighborhood, condemned this spring because of its residents' desire to escape foul air and accident-prone chemical plants and city government's need to expand its sewage treatment plant.
As many as a dozen other families are scheduled to follow suit in the next few weeks, though nearly all will move farther than Jenkins.
The Longs are loading the truck in preparation for their move to southwest Florida.
Rod and Patty Sterry, with a new grandchild in the house, expect to be in Anne Arundel County by month's end.
Larry Sturgill will soon be on his way to West Virginia.
"It's a relief to see my son moving, and to see people start to pack up," says Jenkins' mother, Betty Lefkowitz, 65, who recently signed a contract on a Brooklyn rowhouse three blocks from her son's new place. "I never thought any of us would leave. I was sure that this was where we were all going to die."
The buyout and relocation of Wagner's Point has been a certainty since April 1, when the city's eminent domain legislation first allowed the taking of the land.
But the process of acquiring the properties -- and finding new homes for residents -- has been slowed by confusion and the inability of state and federal officials, who are providing discount loans and other assistance, to work in tandem with the city.
Wave of nostalgia
Most residents in the neighborhood had wanted the relocation, but the moves of the Longs and the Jenkinses -- with the appearance of rental trucks on Leo Street -- have provoked a sudden surge of nostalgia and regret.
On Sunday afternoon, the community held a going-away party for itself at the park, where Adrienne Long could not hold back tears. After eating hamburgers, hot dogs and deviled eggs, residents sat back and listened as a neighborhood rock band -- called, appropriately enough, Exit -- played Beatles and Led Zeppelin tunes.
Exit -- with Jerry Stull singing, his son Minor minding the drums, and Bunky Herb on bass -- per- formed one original song: a heavy-metal number that Stull, inspired by the neighborhood, wrote a decade ago.
"I've been there since the day I was born," goes the chorus. "I guess it will be here after I'm gone. Wagner's Point. Wagner's Point."
On Sunday, Stull changed one word of the refrain, and gave it new meaning. "I guess it won't be there after I'm gone "
"This whole thing is horrible in a way," said Adrienne Long, who could leave as early as tomorrow with her husband, Dave, their grandchildren Crystal and Howie, and their puppy, Muffin. "Sure, we want to leave, but there are some memories here, too."
Reveling in new start
Jenkins missed the picnic, choosing to spend the weekend painting and installing light fixtures in his new house on Annabel Avenue with longtime friend Randy Ferris and brother-in-law Wayne Gray.
Jenkins had expected to wait another week before moving, but the men worked so quickly that he decided to take things over yesterday.
Tugging at his "Jeff Gordon #24" car racing cap, Jenkins marveled at having a front yard with grass. (In Wagner's Point, people must content themselves with the concrete sidewalk). He admired his new air conditioners, which kept the temperature inside a cool 70 degrees. (His old house was usually much hotter). And he smiled at his shiny new dining room chandelier.
Contributing to his good mood are wildly improved personal finances. The city paid him $51,000 for his Leo Street home, and would have provided another $22,500 toward a more expensive house. But Jenkins -- instead of taking on a mortgage on a suburban house far from Wagner's Point and its heavy industry -- decided to forfeit the $22,500 and buy in Brooklyn -- "cheaper but nicer" -- for $40,000.
With the $11,000 difference, he paid off his old mortgage, and bought a set of furniture. He'll leave the old stuff, he says, for the city wrecking crews.
"I'll miss the old home, but this is mine, all mine. I don't owe a thing on it," said Jenkins, who spent much of his childhood in Brooklyn. "It's nice getting a fresh start. I'm rocking and rolling, baby."
That lack of debt, he says, makes the risks of remaining within a mile of the chemical plants worth it.
At the same time, Jenkins remains sensitive to Brooklyn's air -- which can smell as bad as Wagner's -- though his family has largely avoided the cancer scourge that has troubled other clans.
"This is bad," he said, gasping for breath as he carried his 32-inch television through his new front door. "It's hard to breathe here."
But Jenkins has room to grow. He wants to fix up the basement and put a white picket fence as a symbol of his move to suburban-style Brooklyn.
Jenkins also says he is determined to get along with his new neighbors, who might not be accustomed to the loud, outdoor horseplay that defined community life in the close-knit old neighborhood.
"No cussing," Jenkins said to a longtime neighbor who was spewing expletives in the new living room yesterday.
"You're not in Wagner's Point no more."