Teen-ager raises a voice in favor of revitalizing Middle River area

Forlorn look of town spurs her to action

September 05, 2001|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

When hundreds of eager eastsiders packed the creaky Commodore Hall in Essex to discuss a new waterfront destination for Baltimore County, Rachel Wright looked around and felt quite alone.

But the 16-year-old quickly dispelled her minority status among the more vocal, adult members of community associations, merchants and boaters. "I thought a lot of these older people are just thinking about themselves. They are afraid of change coming to eastern Baltimore County," she said.

Youth, too, must be served, Wright says, as the planned revitalization for Essex-Middle River approaches another critical crossroads. The ambitious plan could transform a major portion of the area with new housing, parks and a tourist destination at the headwaters of Middle River.

On Oct. 1, a study team of planners and economic specialists will unveil a plan for the waterfront destination where three underused marinas are located. The public meeting begins at 7 p.m. at Middlesex Elementary School.

And Rachel Wright will be there.

She was one of a few people who have written to the county government about the face lift planned for her hometown since the Aug. 1 meeting at the Commodore. Her suggestion was part of an appeal to residents as officials attempt to collect more input about the plan.

So far, only a few waterfront property owners and merchants have taken the opportunity to suggest alternatives to plans that many reject. There have been about a dozen written responses -- no e-mails or telephone calls.

"Some folks like to express their opinions in person," said William Jones, waterfront development specialist with the county Office of Economic Development. "It was impressive that this young lady took the time to make a commitment to her community in writing."

In doing so, Rachel Wright said she also wanted to help erase the stereotypical image of young people on the county's east side. She believes many outsiders see teen-agers from Essex as criminals, heavy on tattoos and piercings, light on responsibility and dreams.

Her best friend, Heather Gollier, who grew up in Hawthorne, said the lack of creative and positive things to do helps foster negative behavior.

"The older people have their VFWs to go to. We have to go to White Marsh Mall or Harborplace in Baltimore," the 17-year-old said. "For a young person here, it's boring."

The east-side's younger generation has been virtually silent on the revitalization project, Wright said, and "somebody had to step up and say how we feel. Maybe we can change some minds."

It isn't surprising that Wright decided to step up, said Eastern Technical High School Principal Robert Kemmery.

"She is articulate, an honor roll student, a varsity athlete who is not intimidated about taking a position on something about which she feels strongly," said Kemmery.

All students at Eastern go through a mandatory course in ninth grade. They are encouraged to forge ideas and convictions and communicate them through public speaking and writing.

"We encourage students to get involved, and it sounds like that's exactly what Rachel did," said Kemmery.

Wright said she appreciates the character and history of the eastside, its blue-collar reputation with a strong work ethic. But that's the past.

Landmarks such as the Thunderbird Drive-In on Old Eastern Avenue served up its last hamburger in 1979. Glenn L. Martin was an eccentric aeronautical genius, but his company hasn't been hiring since just after World War II ended.

A significant part of the proposed east-side project is the demolition of hundreds of dilapidated low-income housing apartments that were havens for drug dealing and other crimes.

Wright lives with her parents, two sisters and brother in Hawthorne, across the water from where the new waterfront destination would be built. A high school senior, she studies, works part time during the school year at McDonald's and plans to attend culinary college after graduation next spring.

"People say my orange mandarin cake is my best dessert," she said. "I mean, I'd like to graduate and come back to Essex and be a chef at a nice restaurant. That is a wish of mine."

Her community has become somewhat frayed, with minor crime and speculators buying houses and renting them. But most of the homes in Hawthorne remain neatly kept rowhouses or more expensive riverfront properties.

Before field hockey practice one day last week, Wright sat in her family's living room and talked about the emptiness she and other young adults feel about the futures.

"It's a little town with nothing to do, that can't get out of the past," she said. "One of my teachers described Essex as a broken-down town. That's how we are viewed by lots of outsiders. And I like growing up in a diverse environment because you learn how others live and think, that we are not a supreme race."

In her written proposal to the county, she vividly describes the forlorn look of many sections of Essex-Middle River -- boarded-up buildings, closed businesses and the empty apartments at the Villages of Tall Trees, soon to be demolished for a park.

Wright told officials that she favors more restaurants, retail shops on the riverfront and a large community center.

In a few years, she says, people like her will be the new homeowners, college graduates and parents of the east side.

And she would like to raise her children in a better place, she said -- a community that celebrates a colorful history but also one that extends possibilities for brighter tomorrows.

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