A bittersweet homecoming

Ex-Wagner's Point residents return to watch demolition

March 13, 2001|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

An unforgiving pair of steel jaws chomped through 10 rowhouses in Wagner's Point yesterday, marking the end of this tiny southern Baltimore neighborhood that struggled in the shadows of belching chemical companies and a sewage plant.

A city demolition crew is razing all 100 of the two- and three-story homes in the community, erasing the last traces of the working-class families who lived and labored here for four generations. The demolition should take two weeks.

The first home to crumble was a blue rowhouse that neighbors were quick to identify as Stevie Stump's, though he moved long ago.

"Stevie's house is the first one," Jimbo Smith said, craning his neck to watch as his former neighbor's home, at 3635 Leo St., was slammed again and again. "He put a lot of money into that house."

Stump was out of town, but many other former residents, most of whom have moved in the past two years to Brooklyn and Brooklyn Park, came to watch the spectacle. They gasped and moaned when their century-old homes collapsed under the 70-foot-tall wrecking crane. Several people videotaped the demolition.

Residents began moving in 1999 in a city-sponsored buyout that followed several chemical accidents and cancer-related deaths in the neighborhood. The city, state and federal governments and two chemical companies funded the buyout, and the site will be used to expand a city sewage treatment plant.

Yesterday was a bittersweet homecoming. Many former residents saw neighbors they used to pass hours with on their stoops but hadn't talked to in years.

They recalled when Louise Regiec, now 74, and her husband were married in the local Roman Catholic church in 1942.

And when the couple's daughter Madge was runner-up in a church beauty contest in 1963. And the day in 1967 when the church closed.

They also spoke of the family's patriarch, John Regiec, who died in his home two years ago of leukemia at age 79.

"I'm here to get my last look," Louise Regiec said with tears in her eyes as she clutched a mop she had found in the kitchen of her old house. "I guess it's closure."

She said her husband had bought her the mop when he became too sick to clean the floors.

John Regiec would have been happy to see the homes razed, his wife said. But others said yesterday that they never wanted the wrecking crane to arrive.

"I was hoping they'd say, `Let's fix these houses back up and let the people move back in,'" said Billie Jo Vance, 46, who spent most of her life in Wagner's Point.

But the familiar, foul stench in the air reminded many why they wanted to move from one of Baltimore's most isolated communities. The neighborhood dates to 1896, when Martin Wagner established his food-packing business and later built homes for the factory workers.

"It always smelled like this. We'd eat with that smell," said Jackie Boykin, 36, a fourth-generation resident. "Living here, you're immune to it. It's not until you leave that you realize how bad it was."

As chemical companies gradually overtook the neighborhood, families started to move away. But most did not have the means to do so and stayed.

Residents - in essence, a collection of six extended families - did their best to compensate for living near businesses that included a herbicide producer, an asphalt factory, a detergent maker and a city sewage plant.

They did so by carefully maintaining their brick and Formstone homes, decorating them with bright paint and turning them into a surprisingly sweet sight amid the dismal industrial landscape.

"People don't understand what a community like this was," said Ron Hasse, 64, who grew up in a Leo Street rowhouse that his father bought for $2,000 in 1934. "We knew everybody's name. Nobody locked their doors."

Though residents often complained of pollution over the years, it was the chemical companies they complained about that helped sustain the neighborhood, quietly giving away holiday meals, donating heating oil, and paying rents and mortgages when money was tight.

Concerns about their health and safety led neighborhood residents to lobby city officials to purchase their homes, allowing them to move elsewhere. An agreement was reached two years ago for the city, state and federal governments, and two chemical companies to buy the homes and relocate the residents. Despite environmental problems and residents' suspicions that the plants caused their cancers, Wagner's Point has been declared clean and safe by city standards.

As residents began to move, the neighborhood became a target of vandals and looters. Most of the homes were stripped. Doors were kicked in and windows smashed in all of them.

The last of the residents moved out in December.

The $100 million expansion of the wastewater treatment plant will start in about two years, said Amar Sokhey, chief of the water and wastewater bureau in the Department of Public Works.

As Joe Dulaney watched yesterday's demolition, the 60-year-old former Wagner's Point resident said he couldn't imagine a giant sewer plant on the site of his old neighborhood.

"This place was a little jewel in Baltimore," he said.

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