Turning 100, hoping for one happy return

Home: Reunionous storm damage makes it unlikely that Helen Wilson can celebrate her 100th birthday in the place with a lifetime of memories.

September 02, 1999|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

As Upton's Helen E. Wilson prepares to celebrate her 100th birthday Sept. 18, she faces the loss of what she worked much of the century to achieve.

Heavy rainstorms -- one late last week and the other on July 22, which spewed 6 tons of sewer and creek-bed trash into the Inner Harbor -- collapsed the roof of her home, snapping the supporting walls and causing an estimated $50,000 in damage.

For weeks Wilson, who since the cave-in has stayed at her grandson's home in Ashburton, has set her birthday as the deadline for when she wants to be back in her home, a place that's worth roughly $11,000.

"That is my home," the 4-foot-9 Wilson said. "I've been there so long, and most of my family was raised there, so I want to go back."

She probably will not be able to. When contacted yesterday, a spokesman for the city Housing and Community Development Department said the three-story, red brick house at 810 W. Lanvale St., where Wilson has lived since 1960, has been condemned.

"Basically, the cost to repair it will far exceed the cost of the home," said housing department spokesman John Wesley. "We will send an inspector there to assist her with removing the things she wants to remove."

But Wilson's three surviving children, 19 grandchildren and 70 great-great grandchildren are vowing to fight condemnation and possible demolition attempts, fearing it could kill the woman who clambered her way into the ranks of homeowners.

"I called the city to try to get some help, and they came out here, and they are going to condemn it to make matters worse," said her grandson, Steven Arvinger, a Baltimore City school police officer. "Taking her out of this house is killing her."

Wesley acknowledged that separating elderly people from their homes often causes mental and physical health problems, but it's a scenario he sees played out hundreds of times a year.

The family has not told Wilson that her house has been condemned, holding onto hope that they can raise $50,000 to repair it.

Condemned once and for all

But city regulations say a condemned house cannot be repaired or uncondemned, making it likely that the house will be boarded up or demolished. "Once it is condemned, it is condemned," Wesley said.

Ironically, Wilson has been arguing against the city's home condemnation and demolition efforts for several years.

Having voted in almost every election since 1921, the year after the 19th Amendment was adopted, Wilson said she never voted for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke because he demolishes too many city houses. "All those treasures, all those blocks now gone," Wilson said.

Her family, however, is angry that Wilson, who does not have insurance, is unable to stop her home from becoming another of the city's more than 40,000 vacant homes.

After the collapse, Arvinger said he sought city grant money to repair the gaping roof, but officials hesitated.

"We are out of grant money," said Thomas H. Jaudon, director of the city's Home Ownership Institute, which disburses up to $5,000 to needy seniors through the Senior Roof Repair Program. "I only have grant money for emergency repairs. Our money is loans; we are a lender."

Several family members offered to fix the roof and walls, but were told by city officials that the work had to be done by licensed contractors.

Church offers help

Racing to beat the city demolition crew, help began trickling in, especially from her church.

Wilson was one of the founding members of the Memorial Baptist Church at 1311 N. Caroline St. in East Baltimore. She has attended almost every Sunday service since 1915, when it was the People's Christian Church. The oldest church member, she still sings in the choir every other Sunday and at Johns Hopkins Hospital every Christmas Eve.

"Even when she is not feeling her best, she is still here," said the Rev. Calvin E. Keene, the church's pastor of six years. "She is an inspiration to the membership because of her commitment to God."

The congregation was raising money to repair her home, even considering taking money from church coffers. "We cannot take care of all our members' financial needs," said Keene, "but considering who we were talking about, I was looking for resources to salvage the situation."

Wilson's loss of her home is especially upsetting to friends and family who know how hard she worked to obtain it.

From the beginning

Wilson and her mother, Laura Janie Williams (who died in 1951), fled Eastern Shore farm-life poverty in 1912. Like many black families, they came to Baltimore in search of decent wages, stable shelter and a community where involuntary servitude for blacks was no longer the rule.

At age 13, Wilson went to work as a live-in housekeeper for a Baltimore banker who lived at 1033 N. Stricker St. Attending night school at Colored School 133, by day she scrubbed wood stairs, washed porcelain dishes and picked lint off velvet flower arrangements.

"I was never a cook, but I was a cleaning girl," Wilson said with a proud smile.

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