Community hopes to tell of its past

Initiative: Remington leaders campaign to turn this humble city neighborhood into a historic district.

July 11, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Spurred by a new initiative aiming to help older Baltimore neighborhoods invest more in themselves, leaders in Remington are campaigning to turn the no-frills mill village into a historic district that they hope will tell a tale of the city's past.

Once full of mill worker families along the Jones Falls more than a century ago, Remington has changed - nearly as much as the perception many city residents have of it. This humble enclave has never been a showy neighborhood. It has struggled with population drain, boarded-up rowhouses and idle industrial sites - making it a microcosm of some of the city's woes.

But this week at a neighborhood meeting, locals interested in turning around Remington's image made plans to blanket this patch of the city with petitions that would be the first step toward creating a historic district.

"We're hoping to turn around the housing stock, have more people appreciate the community and think about it having a life again," said Remington Neighborhood Alliance president Ward Eisinger, 35. "People are pumped up. Longtime residents want to tell their stories."

That's the hope in Remington, set in a landscape of Formstone, light commerce and industry, oysters to go and a Victorian tower. Remington residents are looking to the past to improve their future and want the city to know there is more to their neighborhood than an unnamed smattering of streets on the well-beaten path to the Jones Falls Expressway.

It's a community that's been worn hard by time. In the 1990s, a prosperous decade by most measures, Remington's population plummeted from 2,895 in 1990 to 2,308 in 2000 and the number of vacant dwellings nearly doubled from 102 to 202 during that period, according to 2000 census figures.

Tax incentives to rehabilitate the aging housing stock is one reason for the petition drive, but so is civic pride. Those in Remington point to an eclectic array of aging landmarks, including an abandoned broom factory, a century-old ice house and a dilapidated salt storage building where the city gets its coating for the streets in winter. Another hint of times past is the Oak Street African Methodist Episcopal Church - Oak Street is now called Howard Street.

A few months of door-to-door knocking lie ahead for proponents, who need to get the majority of Remington's property owners to sign the petition. After getting a majority to sign - the community has about 1,000 to 1,200 owners - organizers can move to the next stage to becoming a historic district.

In the second stage, Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) would create a report and hold a hearing on Remington's historical merits. Then the 11 CHAP commissioners would vote. A City Council vote and mayoral approval would be the last ratification steps.

Eric L. Holcomb, a city planner for historical preservation, is advising Remington leaders on the process. For him, Remington is a rich mine of clues telling of its change from country village to urban neighborhood when the streetcar came along. That past could be parlayed into helping the community of rowhouses receive tax credits for restoration work and attract tourists interested in piecing together the city's history.

"It's a potpourri of working-class, middle-class humble houses," Holcomb said. "When the Remington village economy was first created by mills, people walked to work. And now, preservation is really about keeping these neighborhoods healthy."

Part of Remington is in the Jones Falls Valley Mill District, one of 10 investment zones in Baltimore's historic area recently identified by city and state officials as ripe for developing "cultural tourism." Officials coined the term to describe how they are trying to encourage tourists to travel beyond the waterfront when seeing urban sights. If the CHAP designation comes through, then preservation tax credits, state and local, will be available to Remington property owners to fix up their aging rowhouses.

But in the longer run, projects in Baltimore's 10 chosen zones will be eligible for state tax incentives and matching grants for investment infused into sites that could attract tourists.

Revamping the Streetcar Museum on Remington's western edge would be a prime example of investing in cultural tourism, city planning officials said.

Certain design conditions go with the historic district tax incentives. "On the front facade, we like to keep the restoration look. That's the biggest issue with the CHAP designation, keeping wood windows," Holcomb said.

Some residents have been curious to know if winning that recognition could block a proposed seven-story apartment development on a vacant lot next to the Papermoon diner. While it could not prevent the project, Holcomb said, winning the designation would mean that builders would have to follow guidelines for construction.

"We'll look at materials, scale, shape, even detail," he said.

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