Redevelopment could bind a disintegrating east side

January 14, 2001|By MICHAEL OLESKER

STANDING THERE last week in the 900 block of N. Chester St., looking at the line of boarded-up rowhouses, looking at the clumps of vagrant trash in the gutters, looking at the little corner grocery at Chester and Ashland with boards and iron grating over windows where somebody tried to break in, looking at spray-painted messages on vacant houses around the corner - "R.I.P. Lamont" and "Melvin R.I.P." - two thoughts occur:

1) This is just a single, thoroughly typical intersection in this blighted east-side neighborhood; and,

2) Constance Maddox believes it is worth saving.

Maddox is president of the Madison East End Improvement Association. The deep thinkers at nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital and the deep thinkers at City Hall are engaged in hopeful discussions these days about the future of the neighborhood. Such plans might change the face of East Baltimore. But Maddox does not like what she hears.

Early talks concern redevelopment of more than 20 blocks in a 35-block area (bounded east to west by Broadway and Chester Street, and south to north by Madison Street and the Amtrak line) that would include new mixed-income housing, new businesses, open space - and a "bioscience park" tied to the hospital, which might anchor the entire project.

Asked last week for her thoughts on the matter, Maddox told this newspaper, "Do not allow Hopkins to expand further in the neighborhoods. The people are not going to stand for it."

Some of this thinking is understandable; but some is preposterous.

What's understandable is a desire not to throw people into the street. Human beings live here, and feel comfortable in their homes, and have the same rights as any citizen to live where they please. But who would be pleased to live in such surroundings?

Friday morning, at Chester and Ashland, half a dozen residents were talking about the city-Hopkins negotiations. Nobody voiced even the vaguest murmur of dissent.

"Cool," said Dwayne Jordan, who has lived in the neighborhood for most of his 37 years. "It's nice that the hospital's putting into the community."

"It's not that it's a bad place," said Eugene Brown, 42, who works at the nearby Northeast Market and has lived here for 13 years. "But you have all these old houses. Very old houses. We had a fire in one of these houses the other night, the whole thing was gone in 20 minutes. You got all these houses renting for $250 a month, what do you expect? They've just seen better days, man."

"Oh, the housing's falling in," said Maurice Falls, who lives nearby and works at the Omni Hotel. "A lot of it's just beyond repair. The landlords don't want to put money into it, so it just stays beat up."

"Yeah," said Brown, "but when that rent's due, they show up for that."

At Chester and Ashland, the two men laughed over the notion. But it was laughter of shared anger, shared frustration. So much of the housing is beyond redemption. Landlords don't want to throw good money after bad, but residents remain because of money problems, or age, or sentimental habit; or they leave, and the properties sit there, boarded-up havens for drug users and rats, and entire blocks lose their sense of self-respect.

Old, dilapidated housing is a big piece of the problem - but it's just a piece. The drug dealers still work the corners and the alleys. Though the cops are getting good word-of-mouth these days, there's still a sense of siege mentality.

"You can't let children outside," said Robin Pitts, 29, who lives in the neighborhood and works at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. "I wouldn't let my child sit on the front stoop by herself."

None of this is a surprise. The neighborhood's been troubled for at least the last quarter-century. But crack cocaine and a generation of kids growing up in splintered families has taken a particularly horrid toll. And the policies of the city's previous housing commissioner included patching up a few houses here, a few there, while moving scores of Section 8 subsidized families into the area - and insisting this was a healthy plan.

At the Northeast Market, John Stepp was ruminating about some of this at week's end. He's worked at the market for 39 years and owns Johnny's Deli. He remembers the market before it had walls, "when there was no heat and no air conditioning, and you'd sweat or freeze depending on the weather."

"The horse-and-buggy era," he called it, when his wife's grandparents started working at the market, hauling fresh produce from their farm in Rosedale.

"A different time," Stepp was saying. "There were no drugs then. Now, you got 40 or 50 guys standing in an alley, lined up like soldiers to buy drugs. So the new police commissioner's brought in patrols, and they're moving guys away who stand on the street corners. But some of 'em just go to another corner, don't they?"

"It's rough," agreed Mike Collins, owner of the Music Unlimited store in the shadow of the market. "A lot of people who live in the neighborhood won't even shop in the neighborhood. They leave the house early so they can get back in the house early. And then you've got all these kids running around whose role models are the guys selling dope. It's not the kids' fault. Who else have they got?"

For a long time, the people running the city have known all of this. And they had choices. They could ignore it. They could try to patch it up, a piece at a time. And, while they did this, a thousand other pieces were falling apart.

Or they could get serious about the new plans: a major redevelopment that acknowledges, finally, a neighborhood too decayed, too forlorn and too troubled to repair bit by bit, but might yet become part of a city renaissance with a bold, sweeping redevelopment that ties it to a great institution, the Johns Hopkins Hospital, instead of a modern history of depression.

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