Resolved to stay in city, at least for a little while

Newcomer: One woman struggles to find her place in the city after moving to downtown's west side, which leaders are trying to transform into a vibrant area.

February 24, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

On a steamy day last summer in Fells Point, 31-year-old Brenda Meier was munching pizza and people-watching as her friend raved about all the fun Meier would have living in Baltimore.

Suddenly Meier burst into tears.

Yes, she had just found an apartment she loved, but the city was an unknown. Meier grew up on a farm in Nebraska and lived in a town with one (blinking) stoplight. Baltimore? All she knew was that the television show Homicide was filmed there.

Not only that, but her new address was smack in the middle of downtown's west side, at the scraggly corner of Howard and Lexington streets - a spot few people would call a neighborhood.

Yet this farm girl with a penchant for long skirts, sneakers and headbands set aside her misgivings and moved to a supposedly resurgent Howard Street. As the next five months would prove, she was in for a bumpy ride.

Highs such as strolling to Mount Vernon with her boyfriend from Tanzania and using chopsticks for the first time gave way to lows: seeing what she dubbed the city's "livestock" scurry past, having a strange man hiss at her, and just missing home. One minute she'd vow to make the most of it; the next she'd pine for the prairie.

Brenda Meier's might not be the typical west-side story. But hers is nonetheless a cautionary tale for city officials, developers and business leaders who are wagering lots of money and prestige that the area can become a thriving section of town where people will want to live, shop and see plays.

Planners eventually hope to attract 3,000 new residents, mostly students, young professionals or empty-nesters in their 50s and 60s. But today the area - the city's vibrant retail center until 1960s suburban mania turned it to blight - hardly brims with residential amenities. There are few restaurants and cafes and grocery stores to speak of, unless you count Lexington Market, as some do. At night, rats scamper past gated storefronts on dark, trash-strewn sidewalks.

Although major efforts are planned nearby - namely the $56 million Hippodrome Theater restoration and Bank of America's $70 million, 383-unit residential and retail complex - the Atrium, where Meier lives, feels like a lonely outpost. And that makes her a pioneer.

Starting from scratch

Until a year or so ago, she never planned to leave Nebraska. She was saving to buy a house in Ashland, a town of 2,100. She had a rewarding job at Bethphage, a Lutheran organization that helps people with disabilities. She lived an easy drive from her mother and six siblings and old friends.

But after a church-sponsored trip to beautiful yet impoverished Tanzania, she felt something of a calling and applied for a communications job at Lutheran World Relief, an agency based on Light Street near the harbor. In August she got the job.

Over Labor Day weekend, she and her Nebraska friend Tami Ahrendt - there partly to make sure Meier didn't "chicken out" - flew to Baltimore to hunt for an apartment, armed with conflicting advice.

Difference of opinion

One of Meier's new colleagues, Mary Shields, pushed the virtues of downtown living, especially because Meier had no car. She herself had just moved into the Greenehouse Apartments near Camden Yards, in an area on the west side's southern fringe that has a handful of apartment buildings. She told Meier about a Web site with links to the Atrium and other downtown apartments.

Another colleague, Vicky Whetstone, "about had a heart attack" when she heard Meier was considering the Atrium, once a bustling Hecht Co. department store. Whetstone had grown up in Baltimore and thought the area desolate and dangerous, even though police say it's not so bad.

"To be honest, I was very worried about it," she said. Gently, she suggested somewhere in the suburbs near a bus route. But Meier stuck with downtown. The first stop for her and Ahrendt was the Atrium.

Meier, who has light brown hair, green eyes and an inviting, open face, loved the sixth-floor apartment. The "junior" one-bedroom unit had a walk-in closet, granite counters and a big window overlooking a quiet atrium.

She could afford the $900-a- month rent, which included utilities, access to a fitness center, 24-hour security, and high-speed Internet service that was always connected. And she could walk to work in 20 minutes. The Atrium staff said the area was in the early stages of a rebound, but the surroundings didn't make much of an impression on Meier one way or the other.

City is like cheesecake ...

Eager to end the search, she canceled her other appointments and set out to play tourist with Ahrendt. Meier seemed genuine about giving Baltimore a shot. One night at the Cheesecake Factory, Ahrendt was savoring a piece of vanilla bean cheesecake and wanted Meier to try a bite.

Meier turned up her nose but finally had some - and found herself dabbing tears. After a moment's reflection, she said, "I think Baltimore's going to be like vanilla bean cheesecake. I didn't want to try it at first, but once I did ... ."

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