More than a dozen people are meticulously navigating Northwest Baltimore neighborhoods by Palm Pilot.
With AmeriCorps member Nicole Taylor, retired lawyer Ronald Owens recently scrutinized each brick home on the 3900 block of Penhurst Ave. and assigned it a ranking from 1 to 5, depending on its upkeep.
They are helping survey 17 Northwest neighborhoods with 10,000 homes and 40,000 residents.
The goal is to marshal the numbers and facts for the first comprehensive plan for the area, said Mereida Goodman, president of the Greater Northwest Community Coalition, a partner in the project with the Enterprise Foundation, the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance and the Neighborhood Design Center.
Owens, former president of the Callaway/Garrison Improvement Association, prepared to give one house a 2, but noticed a flaw - a rusted fence - and downgraded it to a 3.
Eyeing the awnings, roofs, and lawns involves some scientific method, Owens said. "Fuzzy stuff? No, this is hard data." Owens, 65, and Taylor, 27, recorded the rating of the addresses on the quiet, modest street into a Palm Pilot, a small handheld computer.
Such judgments, reached from the sidewalk or street within moments, are at the heart of the project, being tried for the first time in Baltimore after runs in the past year in Lorain, Ohio; the Cleveland neighborhood of Mount Pleasant; and York, Pa.
Locally, workers plan to target such communities as Forest Park, Garwyn Oaks, Hanlon, Howard Park, West Arlington, Grove Park and Ashburton.
The advent of tiny technology has given them a powerful, simple tool for quickly taking their community's pulse, said Mark McDermott, Midwest regional director for the Enterprise Foundation who oversaw the Ohio surveys.
"It gives you a great database for making maps of building conditions and land uses, and it's so easy to update," he said. "It's very exciting." A comprehensive community plan drawn up in Lorain was based on the results, he said.
The asset survey of Northwest Baltimore, which includes retail stores, churches, schools and vacancies, is more than half done, and should be finished in a month.
"We need to know where we're at. It's useful to identify the problem areas and know the property conditions," said Clarence O. Ridgley, 53, president of the Callaway/Garrison Improvement Association. "It beats a manual count."
The driving and pavement-pounding will arm residents with knowledge for public planning and zoning forums and give them "a lot more push to get things done, to get resources," from the city, Ridgely said. More transportation for the elderly and child day care are priorities, he said.
Also critical is attracting potential homebuyers to the properties: "I've already been surprised. You don't [always] recognize the pluses," Ridgley said.
Armand C. Magnelli, Enterprise's senior program director, said: "People are seeing things they haven't seen before. They focus and learn a lot about their own neighborhoods."
After a neighborhood is surveyed, the data is downloaded into a central information data base at the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance office in Charles Village. City officials are cooperating in the effort by providing geographic information, such as land parcel numbers, he said.
Ten years ago, Magnelli said, "Someone would have to sit at a computer and input the information from 10,000 pieces of paper."
All that the curious in Ashburton or Howard Park have to do to learn about what may be the city's largest electronic mapping project is ask. "If a person comes out, I'll gladly go talk to him," said Owens.