Looking for a win-win on east side

Urban Chronicle

Housing: Neighbors hope the city's proposed biotech park near Hopkins will replace acres of blight in their community.

September 19, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

BERNARD C. "Jack" Young is giving a walking tour of East Baltimore, his mood and voice alternating among nostalgia, anger and hope.

His nostalgia is for the way the area north of the Johns Hopkins medical complex was when Young, 48, was a boy growing up; his anger is for the warren of boarded buildings and debris-filled lots the neighborhood has become; his hope is that the city's proposed biotech park will transform the community by replacing acres of blight.

"I'm optimistic that this thing can work," Young says. "If it's done like we hope, I think it's going to be a wonderful project."

Young speaks from a three-pronged perspective.

He grew up in the area and lives just east of the proposed biotech park, in a 1920 rowhouse sandwiched between two boarded buildings and valued by state assessors at $23,000.

He works at the medical complex, as manager of Hopkins Hospital's radiology library.

And he represents the area on the City Council, which next month will vote on legislation giving the city the right to acquire up to 3,300 properties for the biotech park and related new and renovated housing.

Tonight, the council will hold the third in a series of hearings in the community on the legislation; next Thursday, the council will hold its final hearing in the Middle East community, where the biotech park and two-thirds of the properties the city wants to condemn are located.

Young acknowledges that some residents believe his job at Hopkins - which is a strong supporter of the biotech park and which some critics feel stands to benefit from it more than the community - makes him a less-than-objective observer.

"I'm not selling out my community, I'm looking for a win-win," he says. "If something stinks, I'll say it stinks."

He also acknowledges that some even question his residency. Without prompting, he leads a visitor to the second-floor bedroom of the house he has owned since the mid-1970s, revealing a slightly disheveled bed and disorganized closet.

"Some people don't think I really live here because they don't think an elected official would live between two vacant houses, but I do," he says.

The prospect that the biotech park could generate jobs for area residents is particularly enticing to Young, who says most jobs are held by people outside the neighborhood.

Young's support for the project is not unqualified. He says the city needs to come up with enough money to provide grants and loans to homeowners whose properties are not in the path of the park itself, but who want to remain in them and need money for repairs.

And his tour of the neighborhood includes a stop at the East End Garage on East Biddle Street, a thriving auto repair shop that is on the list of properties to be acquired whose owners say they have yet to be offered a new location in the area.

"They do good work, they keep the alley clean," Young says. "The city puts together parcels [of land] for Hopkins and Kennedy-Krieger. Why not these guys?"

Young remembers a lot more businesses when he was growing up: a movie theater on Gay Street, a grocery on Broadway where he worked as a delivery boy, even a deli.

"And restaurants," he says. "I'm not talking about jive restaurants. I'm talking about nice restaurants."

There are lots of reasons given for the east side's decline, but Young puts decades of lax and nonexistent property code enforcement at the top of the list. Standing in front of a vacant house in the 800 block of Caroline St., he says, "We allow things to just sit."

"I'm not trying to make this a racial thing, but this wouldn't be allowed in Roland Park, wouldn't be allowed in Guilford," he adds.

Not far away, in the 1800 block of E. Eager St., he points out a string of boarded, blighted rowhouses slated for acquisition.

"HABC, HABC, HABC," he says, accusatorily repeating the initials of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, which owns the properties. "The city is one of the worst landlords. We need to clean up our own back yard before we start leaning on other people."

He is even angrier about the city's failure to maintain the grounds of the shuttered Luther C. Craven Elementary School on Chase Street, which was overgrown with weeds. "I'm bitter about it, I really am," he says.

Young says there are a surprising number of homeowners who take pride in their property, but concedes the boarded buildings, crumbling sidewalks and piles of trash are predominant.

"I don't even want to campaign through my area because of the way it looks," he says. "I can't continue knocking on doors and asking for votes. I want to see something."

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