FROM THE grounds of the March Funeral Home on East North Avenue, voices were raised for the singing of gospel songs and the readings of scripture.
The voices came not from the chapel, but from the parking lot. And they were lifted not as part of a ceremony of death, but as a celebration of a hoped-for rebirth.
The occasion was a free concert Saturday night to highlight the East North Avenue Community Development Corp.'s fledgling initiative to revitalize what it calls the "Northern Gateway" to the east side.
"We are at the point where we need to kick-start this effort," said Erich March, general manager of the family-owned funeral home that has been a fixture on East North Avenue for nearly a half-century and president of the CDC, explaining the philosophy behind the public event.
The effort is part of a broader attempt to revive the city's tattered core by beginning to repair the broken threads between the booming waterfront and the stable neighborhoods of North and Northeast Baltimore.
It is the outgrowth of a task force of businesses and nonprofit agencies that quietly began meeting three years ago to address concerns about the mostly blighted condition of the corridor from Charles Street to Port Street. The stretch includes city school headquarters and Green Mount Cemetery, as well as scores of abandoned rowhouses and vacant lots; its most recent claim to fame came two years ago when a shooting left 11 people wounded and one dead on Memorial Day.
The CDC was incorporated two years ago. A three-step general plan for redevelopment was drafted, and $50,000 in foundation grants was secured for further planning and administration.
And the city has included a portion of East North Avenue in a bill before the City Council that would create a development district in which a portion of new tax revenue would be set aside to be used for further building.
These are drops in the buckets of money that are needed to revitalize East North Avenue. And to get additional funds, the effort will have to compete for scarce public, private and foundation support with a bevy of other worthy projects, including the Station North arts district and the east-side biotech park.
But behind the stage Saturday was a large banner with the city's one-word signature slogan: "Believe." And March, a stocky 51-year-old with a graying beard, echoes that faith and optimism for the eastern half of the east-west thoroughfare that runs "from Hilton to Milton" streets.
"You can't let this kind of deterioration keep on going and expect to be a city 50 years from now," he said. "If no one tries, nothing happens."
At the same time, he is a realist.
"We have to think long-range," he said. "I know this isn't going to happen overnight."
In fact, the CDC's plan expects the first phase of the project to take up to three years to complete - a nine-block commercial stretch from Ensor Street to Regester Street.
The initial focus is even more limited: a three-block stretch on the north side of the avenue between Aisquith Street and Harford Road. With a new Citgo gas station and a Subway sandwich shop at one end of the stretch and a new Walgreens at the other, the CDC envisions a 15-store shopping center between them, at a projected cost of about $12 million, including $3 million for property acquisition.
The plan goes against the grain of conventional thinking that retailing follows residential development, but to March it makes perfect sense.
"No one's going to move into an area devoid of services," he said.
March said the CDC would own the property and lease to a developer that it has lined up, generating rental payment to fund further redevelopment. And, he said, the CDC would operate a neighborhood hardware store in the center.
"It ties into keeping property up," he said.
Despite obvious signs of blight, including a pile of debris from a recently demolished rowhouse, March pointed out that the immediate area has more than its share of foot traffic. The Eastside District Court and the state Department of Social Services office at Harford Road and East North Avenue, and the Great Blacks in Wax Museum and his funeral home draw a combined million and a half people a year to the area, he said.
March sees the revitalization of East North Avenue as important not just for its own sake, but also to assuring the success of the far more ambitious and publicized biotech park south of the corridor. "If you don't fix up the front door [to East Baltimore], nothing's going to happen," he said.
He remembers a much different stretch of the street from decades ago: polished marble steps and median strips, and the Christmas display at the old Sears store.
Gazing at the street's sorry landscape at twilight, just before the concert began, March expressed a mixture of sorrow and bewilderment.
"It's a shame what Baltimore looks like on this main boulevard," he said. "I can't understand why nothing has ever happened."