The name of the past Identity: Residents of Hopewell, a black enclave in Baltimore County, say the name of a planned development exploits the community's legacy.

Community sees in name a link to past

June 13, 2000|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

The afternoon heat shimmers along Hopewell Avenue, but that doesn't stop George Green, 75, from leaning against his green pickup truck and waxing histrionic about being present during the attack on Pearl Harbor or enjoying his reputation as an ace crane operator.

Certainly, there are concessions granted to one of the senior squires of Hopewell, a two-block enclave of middle-class blacks in Essex that traces its history back more than a century. Eventually, though, like everybody else along Hopewell, Green's conversation turns to the theft of Hopewell's rich past.

That history - squirreled away in shoe boxes, bureau drawers, but mostly in memories - is in peril, residents say. Their past is being stolen for the name of a planned $35 million development, with houses, condominiums and a waterfront restaurant, across a creek in their eastern Baltimore County neighborhood.

Hopewell Pointe has been promoted as one of the glittering sideshows of County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger's revitalization plan on the county's east side, the most ambitious redevelopment project in county history.

A law passed this year by the General Assembly calls for county condemnation power for an area in Essex-Middle River, a move applauded by many who welcome an attack on substandard low-income housing, crime and unemployment.

But the residents who welcome the change, including those on Hopewell Avenue, are also jittery about the condemnation power and worry that demolition might creep into their communities.

"What's in a name?" Green asked. "It's kids going to a colored school that was right on this block. It was a group of people, not well known, but who did their families proud. It's something that belongs to us, something we're proud of, and it's something that's being taken from us."

Nellie Butler-Grinage, president of the Hopewell Improvement Association, said she complained to developers and the county about the use of the community name, "but we've made no progress. It's like we don't matter."

The developers of Hopewell Pointe, planned for nearby Hopkins Landing, named their property in September 1996. They say the name was borrowed from old navigational charts, not from the Hopewell community.

"The name has a flavor we like," said Thomas Carski, one of the developers of the 55-acre tract. "It was never meant as a derogatory slap at people on Hopewell Avenue. The issue never appeared to be that sensitive."

Ellwood A. Sinsky, another developer, said that "none of our property has anything historic on it. We also had underwater archaeologists make certain that nothing historic was offshore."

Critics of the developers note another problem, or the appearance of one: Two of the developers work closely with county planning and historic groups.

Sinsky is a member of the county planning board and the Historical Advisory Commission, appointed by Ruppersberger to both bodies.

Carski sits on the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which must approve building proposals that affect any structures and all developments in county historic districts. He, too, was appointed by Ruppersberger.

Carski and Sinsky say their positions do not give them privilege in dealing with the county executive or County Council. And, they say, their decisions on the county boards are made independently of the Ruppersberger administration.

But a "perception of conflict does remain," said Alfred N. Guy Jr., director of the Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics at University of Baltimore.

"Say, for instance, the people of the Hopewell community have the money and time to formally contest use of their name," Guy said. "Would the developers then resign their positions?"

"Why didn't they just name it Crystal Waters Estate or something?" Guy said.

Butler-Grinage said Hopewell Avenue's recorded history dates back a century.

Most of that claim is backed by longtime residents like Green and Charles N. Poole Sr., 72, a retired maintenance worker who worked at Eastern Stainless Steel Corp. for 37 years.

"Until recently, many people didn't know this was a black neighborhood here off Back River Neck Road," said Poole. "A cop followed me home about eight years ago, and he was amazed that black folk lived here."

Poole's wife, Delores, 71, attended tiny, segregated Walters Elementary School, which was on Hopewell Avenue, now the site of a well-kept house.

"When I graduated, we went to the Bragg School, an all-black high school in Sparrows Point," she said. "Hopewell has always been a nice neighborhood. I watched it grow from a single-lane dirt road to what it is now."

Records show that a larger area upon which Hopewell Avenue sits dates to 1705, when Charles Calvert, third Lord Baltimore deeded 259 acres to Francis Watkins, who named the land Beeton's Hope, said Paul M. Blitz, historian with the Heritage Society of Essex-Middle River.

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