Recycling a building helps revive community

March 10, 2002|By Michael Olesker

IN A THROWAWAY society, the beautiful things sometimes get the chance to stick around. It happens now at 4801 Liberty Heights Ave., in Northwest Baltimore, where once there was a place called Howard Park Elementary School No. 218; now it is The Oaks at Liberty.

They are the same place at opposite ends of the life cycle. In its youth, the building was home to schoolkids in the morning of their lives. Now the elderly will live there in their twilight, in 75 cozy apartments officially opened last week with the mayor of Baltimore on hand, and housing officials, and a city councilwoman, Helen Holton, who understood better than anyone the sweetness of the moment.

"My first dance recital," she said, seeming slightly awed by the memory. "I had it right over here."

She was a little girl then, who attended Howard Park when its hallways rang with the shouts of children. It was years ago. Now Holton looked around and said, "This is what urban living is all about. Not tearing down just to tear down, but going on, making the best of what you already have."

This building, and this project, tell us a lot about such things.

We want to stay modern, to refresh the culture, to keep up with trends. But we also want to hold onto the things that make a community, and a history. Thus, the beauty of this transition.

The $8.5 million, 77,000- square-foot project, built out of the former elementary school plus an addition, was government-financed and includes three floors of apartments, plus a community room, an exercise area, laundry rooms, a computer room and inviting landscaping on what once was the school playground.

From the time the school opened its doors 95 years ago, it was the very heart of a bustling, confident middle-class Howard Park community that came to include private homes and vibrant houses of worship, Scout troops and Little Leaguers parading through the streets each spring, a Read's Drug Store, Acme and Schreiber's supermarkets, Toots Barger's Bowling Academy and the Ambassador movie theater.

The school seemed like Norman Rockwell's vision of what such an institution should look like: ball fields and jungle gyms in the teeming schoolyard, and bicycle stands and hopscotch areas, and an interior with wooden staircases and floors, intimate classrooms, and loving teachers who nonetheless knew how to chill pupils to their socks for any perceived misdemeanors.

But the school closed in 1980. It was old. For a few years, it was used for troubled kids. An indoor recreation center, which had been added in 1959, became the Forest Park Senior Center, which still has more than 500 members who gather each day.

But the neighborhood around it had also changed -- racially, the way so many did in the postwar years, and economically, too. Houses grew old, streets needed repairs. Drug traffic that afflicted scores of neighborhoods hit this one, too.

But last week, Mayor O'Malley described the opening of The Oaks at Liberty as part of a promising trend in the area. Across the Northwestern District, he said, street crime is down by about 50 percent over the past two years.

"The streets are safer and cleaner, which makes it easier to accomplish things," he said. "Like this center, which is the heart and soul of a community."

Then he turned to the Rev. Leander G. Brown of the New Carmel Star Baptist Church, and said, "Reverend, do you have a blessing for getting more government money? Something like the loaves and fishes?"

Because, while it's lovely to open new housing, and it arouses great sentiment of children at play, there are still real problems -- including the nearby commercial area.

The former Read's Drug Store, a block away at Gwynn Oak Junction, is now Tennis Shoe Warehouse. The Ben Franklin 5&10 is a closed beauty supply business, and the former Schreiber's Supermarket, which became the Howard Park Super Pride, is now shut. The Ambassador Theatre became a cosmetology school that went out of business and is now the Real Full Truth Gospel Ministry. The former Acme Food Market, directly across the street from the new senior housing, is now the Miracle Church of Christ.

"See, that's one of the big problems we have," said senior center board member Francis Green last week. "This place helps bring the community back to life. But where do they go when they need a drugstore or a food store?"

"We worked and prayed and begged for the new apartments," said John Saunders, director of the senior center. "But we'll have to work harder so people will have a place to get food and drugs."

In the meantime, it was lovely to see the transition last week. One of the new residents, Mary Kim-Hydes, said, "It's the most beautiful place I've ever been in." She seemed as if she might swoon.

"It makes you feel at home," she said. "I don't like to cook. But I walked into that kitchen and said, `Oh, my.'"

She paused for a moment to think about it. "I'm still not cooking," she said, laughing, "but ..."

But it's there. The kitchen's there, and the new apartment, and so is the old schoolhouse building. As it has been for nearly a hundred years -- first rousing children each morning, and now putting the elderly to bed.

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