Faith can help revitalize area around Beth Am

October 20, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

WITH GOD in his heaven and sunlight reflecting brilliantly off a broken wine bottle lying in the 2500 block of Eutaw Place, LaVerne Fields of the Lakeside Improvement Association turns to Rabbi Jon Konheim of the Beth Am Synagogue and asks:

"Are you really moving down here?"

"That's my plan," says Konheim.

"Good," says Fields, "I want you to move here. Because I want to try some more of those matzoh balls."

What we have here, besides culinary anticipation, is a moment in the American mix. Fields is black; Konheim is white. Soon they are joined by a racial and religious conglomeration that includes 82-year-old LaClaire Bunke, who has lived in the neighborhood nearly half a century; Sally Scott, a program officer with the Goldseker Foundation who worships at Beth Am; the Rev. Tom Composto of the St. Francis Neighborhood Center on nearby Linden Avenue; Harry Peaker, a retired mathematician who has lived here for 44 years; community organizer Frank Patinella; and Victor Mitchell, a supervisor with the city's Bureau of Solid Waste.

From the 2500 block of Eutaw Place, we can gaze north toward spectacular Druid Hill Park a few hundred yards away, a geographical gift that should make this one of Baltimore's most desirable neighborhoods. Or we can take in the glorious century-old mansions, the restored Victorian-era brownstones and the stately apartment buildings overlooking Druid Lake, more evidence of a community that should resemble a sort of Bolton Hill-by-the-water.

Or we can wonder: After all this time, and so much deterioration, and a dreadful public image based on crime and drug traffic, and vacant houses and trash in the streets, can this West Baltimore neighborhood, between North Avenue and Druid Park Lake Drive, really come back?

From the little gathering on Eutaw Place last week came a resounding yes. They are True Believers. On a walking tour of the area, they made a pretty good case that this will be one of the city's next hot neighborhoods.

"A whole new renaissance," said Peaker, the retired mathematician, who moved into his house in 1958, when the neighborhood was just beginning to change racially. "The neighborhood's been discovered again. Blacks and whites, doesn't matter. It's becoming an elegant neighborhood again."

This is important on several counts. Much of the city's rebirth has been in waterfront neighborhoods. This one's inland. Also, it's a neighborhood estimated to be 90 percent African-American, in which blacks and whites, middle class and working class, are part of the rebirth.

That includes the Beth Am Synagogue, which has continued as spiritual home to Jews from across the metro area during good and difficult times.

"A beautiful neighborhood," Rabbi Konheim said now. "Look at the architecture."

He gestured toward a couple of nearby brownstones where workers were putting in new windows. He's looking for a home in the neighborhood for a couple of reasons.

"So I don't have to drive on Saturday," he said. "And because part of my job as rabbi is a symbolic one. And the symbolic message is, if the rabbi is moving to this neighborhood, maybe we should think about it, too. It's a community for all kinds of people, including Jews."

"That clarifies, for me, that the synagogue will thrive as the neighborhood thrives," Scott said. "If he moves here, that's a big symbol. It says people have to look at some of their outdated perceptions."

As a program officer with the Goldseker Foundation, Scott has had a front-row seat looking at neighborhoods trying to come back after years of difficulties. Renovating buildings is one thing; changing images is another.

A few blocks from Beth Am is notorious Whitelock Street. For years, it was synonymous with some of the city's worst narcotics traffic and all the associated blight. Today, that stretch of Whitelock Street has undergone serious change. Some buildings were obliterated by the city. Some are being rehabbed. Government and foundation money has found its way here. Some stretches have been turned into green areas.

"We told people we wanted to do a garden," says Patinella, the community organizer. "It's a Saturday morning. There's nobody here. All of a sudden, from every direction, people are arriving with shovels. They want to make this work."

"People are finally coming together," says Father Composto. "They realize disputes and divisiveness don't work. This is the spiritual greening of a neighborhood."

He says this as we reach the corner of Whitelock and Linden. Looking south, we see a couple of young men. Drug lookouts, everybody agreed. Half a block north, though, was Father Composto's St. Francis Neighborhood Center. A sign out front says, "Come pray with us."

For a long time, this neighborhood didn't seem to have a prayer. Now it reaches for its own salvation.

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