Years of decline nearly killed Harlem Park's spirit.
But today community leaders, politicians and development officials will lay a cornerstone at the site of Harlem Gardens, an $8.6 million apartment project that is bringing new housing and a sense of hope to that part of West Baltimore.
"We went into this knowing we can't mess up," said Jelili Ogundele, president of the Harlem Park Revitalization Corp. "This is a chance to bring this community back to what it was 40 and 50 years ago."
Since January, the air along the 1700 block of Edmondson Ave. has been filled with the banging of hammers, the grinding motors of construction equipment and the shouts of workers.
Harlem Gardens, a 94-unit, four-story senior citizens' apartment building, is the first tangible evidence of redevelopment efforts aimed at reviving a neighborhood once as solid and beloved as any in Baltimore.
When completed, the apartment complex will have a pharmacy, doctors' offices and the only sit-down restaurant in the surrounding 36 square blocks. Work on Harlem Gardens is expected to be completed by year's end.
The prime financial engine behind the project is Bank of America, which is pushing a 24-block redevelopment project for Harlem Park.
The bank's development arm also is moving ahead with a complicated, $23 million project that involves buying 360 homes and lots in the six blocks around Mount Street and Harlem Avenue, clearing the land, and building 160 single-family homes. That project, scheduled to begin next year, will give the area an entirely different look. The new homes will have front yards and side lawns. Many of the pocket parks, whose wrecked and rusted jungle gyms have become public dumps and havens for drug use, will vanish.
All of this stems from a master plan completed several years ago by community activists, bank officials and government planners. They hope to revitalize the neighborhood and bring back the middle class that once called Harlem Park home.
Carmena Watson, who has lived in the same house in the 1100 block of Harlem Ave. for all of her 68 years, said she and other area homeowners never gave up on the neighborhood.
"I'm on everything there is to be on in Harlem Park, trying to save it," said Watson, a retired Department of Defense employee and former state delegate. "When [developers] tried to cut up these houses into six and seven units, we banded together. We were fighting them."
To see the neighborhood now, it is hard to believe the stories about streets filled with doctors, teachers and other professionals. Vacant lots, choked with weeds and trash, are common, as are vacant houses and burned-out buildings so ruined by age that the fact they are still standing is a testament to the bricklayers, masons and laborers who built them.
Reminders of grief and sorrow are everywhere. Buildings are covered with tributes: RIP Lil Apple, RIP Keith, RIP Duncan, RIP Vic. A cluster of teddy bears and empty Remy Martin and Hennessy bottles are tied to a light pole at Edmondson and Arlington avenues in memory of Clyde Omar Martin, 16, who was shot dead here two weeks ago.
Watson remembers a time before the decline, when Fulton Avenue wasn't a bleak stretch of concrete and asphalt. Fifty years ago the avenue had a wide, grassy median lined with street lamps, and huge, gorgeous trees to rival Eutaw Place. Harlem Square and Lafayette Square were splendid urban parks.
Then came the exodus brought on by desegregation. The professionals moved to Northwest Baltimore and elsewhere. The population plummeted -- 25 percent in 20 years -- and poverty set in.
A statistician might look at the numbers and declare the area beyond saving.
About 5,300 people live in Harlem Park, according to a land-use report compiled to study the project. Of those 25 years and older, 56 percent do not have a high school diploma, while another 28 percent only have a diploma or GED certificate. The average annual household income is $25,148, with 65 percent of the households earning less than $20,000 a year.
City Councilman Kwame Abayomi, pastor of Unity United Methodist Church, is fully aware of the neighborhood's problems. Still, he said, those problems and fears have to be pushed aside for any progress to begin.
His church is preparing to build a 74-unit apartment complex a few blocks from Harlem Gardens.
"We're living not by facts, but by faith. We believe there will be a brand-new community here," he said. "There is no reason to think this community will change unless you can dream. The overwhelming dysfunction of the community would dictate that there's no hope for it."
Yet, there are signs the worst times in Harlem Park may be over. The federal Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Program has issued a $500,000 grant to spruce up Harlem Square Park. Further east on Edmondson Avenue, the $65 million Heritage Crossing development nears completion on the old Murphy Homes site. The University of Maryland is moving to create a biotech park near Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Baltimore Street.