Rows of new houses inhabit emptying city with fresh hope

March 08, 2003|By JACQUES KELLY

I GET KIND of giddy when I spot new houses rising in locales of old Baltimore where nobody wanted to live - or admit they lived - for so many years. It was a wise individual who once said, cities can't be saved; they can only be inhabited.

Just when you think this long gray winter will not quit comes the signal to boost the spirits. I was along Caroline Street this week, deep in the ancient city, when I spotted the beginnings of a new row of homes going up near Thames. When I say going up, all that's evident is a set of sewer pipes popping from the ground. Just around the corner, on Bond Street, another empty space has been filled with more new houses.

It is so true that Baltimore's lost about a third of its population in my lifetime. The vacant house and empty lot situation is depressing. So, may I suggest a visit to Boston Street, just opposite the Captain James restaurant, wherein a fresh new neighborhood has risen in what seems like a matter of weeks?

What delights me is that contractors and architects have finally designed new homes that fit into the city's character. Yes, they are new, but compared to some of the 1980s attempts to add homes on Boston Street, these are winners. I like to see new neighborhoods that respect Baltimore's rowhouse-granite curb traditions. Leave the suburbs behind at the city line, please.

And, in a city that needs more rain to wash away the winter's accumulated snow/soot, the sight of fresh bricks and new roofs and windows on a cute little rowhouse by the harbor works wonders. You don't have to buy; looking is good enough. And there is something reassuring about a gang of new houses going up. It imparts a warm, domestic feel that a new office building or garage never supplies.

A week ago, my father and I took off for another one of these addresses where a group of new houses is going up. It took some searching, but we finally found the site of the old Pilgrim Laundry on South Baltimore's East Ostend Street. In the process, we discovered that his old grammar school, Holy Cross, was being converted into apartments.

Also moving ahead are more rowhouses at the site of the old Church Home and Hospital on North Broadway, a few blocks below Johns Hopkins Hospital. Just a year ago, I got a jolt when I saw that one of the homes where my family lived, generations ago, had been knocked down. Well, if new houses can rise at Broadway and Fayette, they can go up at Broadway and North, where my great-grandfather's home disappeared.

I also see why people want a new house - and why the beckoning call to the suburbs was so strong, for so long. Keeping up an old city house is a costly ordeal. While I sing the praises of my own 1870s city abode, it has its quirks. I was home sick a couple days this week and heard a funny noise. I opened my bedroom's curtains to find my friendly roofers staring me in the face. One fellow pointed to rust spots on the tin roof over my front porch. He said, "Rough shape." An estimate for $740 soon arrived.

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