Road to remembrance

Reunion: Former childhood pals whose neighborhoods were broken up by the I-170 project plan to recall old times in a gathering today.

October 25, 2003|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Alton West vividly remembers scrubbing the four marble steps at his grandparents' Monroe Street rowhouse in West Baltimore every Saturday morning back in the late 1960s. "I used Bab-O, Comet and bleach," West recently recalled. "I scrubbed them many times."

West, 54, and the other neighborhood kids were too young to realize, or perhaps care, that the marble steps symbolized home ownership, that they didn't live in the projects. What mattered to them was their closeness and their sense of belonging in a neighborhood they called home.

But by the early 1970s, a proposed highway - Interstate 170 - was changing the landscape. Originally planned as an east-west expressway that would run directly through the city, most of the plans fell flat - and so did the neighborhoods that stood in the highway's path. The city bought out the homeowners in the Franklin-Mulberry corridor to make way for a highway that never went anywhere.

Despite losing their homes to fizzled urban planning, the bonds that West and the others formed back then are still strong. So solid that today, 35 years later, they're getting together for "The Old Neighborhood Gang Reunion."

"We're doing this because of the friendship, the love," said West, retired from the city Department of Housing and Community Development. "We need to get back together. That's all I've been hearing from people since we started this thing, that they still think about those days."

Interstate 170 was planned as a "spur" road - a link to carry suburban and out-of-state motorists from Interstate 95 in Southwest Baltimore and Interstate 70, but over the years it became mired in politics and burgeoning costs. Despite decades of planning and expenditures of $101 million, the highway begins at Greene Street downtown and runs only 1.36 miles through West Baltimore before abruptly stopping and dumping motorists back onto Greene Street.

West, Anthony Speight and Rochelle Davis have questioned the compensation their parents got for their homes. "I heard ... that the money being offered was nothing but mere peanuts compared to what the property was worth," West said. "The people were being low-balled."

Most of the displaced homeowners received up to $5,000 - an amount that equals about $23,000 in today's dollars. In some cases, homeowners complained that their compensation was not enough to enable them to buy other homes.

But the reunion participants say they're not dwelling on bitterness or anger toward the city. Rather, today's event is about remembering a special time in their lives. Among those who will be at the reunion, to be held in a community social hall in the 4300 block of Harford Road, will be West's buddies from the old neighborhood.

They include Speight, Reggie Greene and Robert Tolson, who were among the core group of friends who watched each others' backs when kids from nearby neighborhoods came around to their turf - Franklin, Monroe, Mulberry and Payson streets - starting trouble.

So imagine the shock when West and his cohorts learned their homes would be demolished to pave the way for Interstate 170.

Davis, 56, who grew up in the 1900 block of W. Mulberry St., talks excitedly about the reunion and seeing old friends like Vera Borum, who lives in New Jersey.

Davis got involved in planning the reunion after West and Speight made a surprise visit to her office at the city social services department in December.

"They came to the waiting room and asked for me," Davis recalled. "When I saw them, I was absolutely thrilled. I couldn't believe it. I hadn't seen them in 32 years at least. Once we stood there and started talking and stuff, it was like all the years just melted away."

Davis and other organizers have forged ahead with plans for today's reunion and say they're going to get together annually. They even are planning a trip to Atlantic City for early next year.

Still, they can't forget that Interstate 170 forced childhood friends who were as close as siblings and saw each other daily to lose touch with each other, in some cases for decades. Speight's family left the neighborhood first, moving in 1967 from West Franklin Street to Gwynns Falls Parkway. He got a job at Sparrows Point, but about eight months later as the 1968 riots were erupting in Baltimore, he was drafted and sent to Vietnam.

Speight, 55, is disabled and lives in the house on Gwynns Falls with his wife. They have three grown daughters.

West and his maternal grandparents, William and Lelia Willard, ended up on Westwood Avenue. A Morgan State student at the time, West quit school in 1969 to become a city housing inspector. He got married in 1971 and his son, Alton West Jr., was born in 1978. A divorcee, West retired in 2002.

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