`Building the whole place up'

Pen Lucy: A $1 million investment by Habitat for Humanity and `sweat equity' aim to turn one street - and a community - around.

December 08, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

After growing up in the housing projects of Nyack, N.Y., Cynthia Payne and her teen-age daughter, Brittney, have found a home of their own in Pen Lucy.

"I'll have something to pass on to Brittney," the 31-year-old Payne said of her brick rowhouse. "A piece of the American dream."

Payne is slated to be the first to move into a cluster of rowhouses that Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity plans to rehabilitate in Pen Lucy, a North Baltimore neighborhood just east of York Road. The rowhouses and duplexes on Cator Avenue have clearly seen better days - and, if the program works, may see better days again.

The nonprofit Habitat - a local affiliate of the international organization that renovates dilapidated houses for low-income buyers - is preparing to invest $1 million in the core of Pen Lucy, an area pockmarked with dozens of vacant properties. With the community's backing, the group set an ambitious goal: to acquire and rehabilitate up to 20 of Cator Avenue's empty rowhouses, one by one.

Organizers say the revitalization strategy's strength lies in its concentration on a single street - the spine of the neighborhood, which borders upper-income Guilford.

Clustering is increasingly regarded as a key ingredient in reviving swaths of run-down city blocks.

A `home run'

Baltimore housing official David Levy, assistant commissioner of development, called the Pen Lucy effort a "home run" and says the city is eager to cooperate. Habitat hopes to acquire some of the Cator Avenue houses through Mayor Martin O'Malley's Project 5000 program.

Robert Nowlin Sr., a Cator Avenue resident since 1989 and neighborhood activist, has lived through scary, tough times in Pen Lucy with his wife, Erlene, and four children. Only a few years ago, drug dealing, gunfire and killings on nearby Old York Road were commonplace, he said.

Nowlin, who was honored recently by the Police Department for his vigilance - officers refer to him as "the blind man who can see" - said the Habitat project is a beacon for a neighborhood scarred by past bloodshed.

"This is going to be outstanding not only for Cator Avenue, but all of Pen Lucy," Nowlin, 64, said of the Habitat project starting a few doors from his house. "It could change the future and the landscape. Homeowners can erase the bad reputation of crime and drugs. ... People will appreciate the beautiful community it is."

Payne's house in the 700 block, the first in the Habitat series, gives a glimpse of what's in store.

Outdoors, the porch floor has been painted a fresh coat of battleship gray. Interior construction is underway by a crew of workers that includes youthful AmeriCorps members and retired volunteers. Each house will receive a complete overhaul with new electrical and plumbing fixtures.

Habitat's second site in Pen Lucy, a modest, two-story 1920s house in the 600 block, has just been cleared of leftover clutter and trash, exposing a pretty bay window with broken panes in the upstairs front room. Now that it's an empty shell, the house can be re-invented along the lines of Habitat's focus - simple, decent, affordable.


Matt Metzger, 27, the project director, is responsible for new floor plans for every house and tries to preserve important architectural elements, such as transom windows.

"It's exciting, it will be gorgeous," he said as he looked over the second story of the house in the 600 block. "The cornice is in perfect shape."

Restoration of the housing stock can't come soon enough for Robin Mouzone, 30, a mother of three young children who lives on Cator Avenue. She looks forward to the project "building the whole place up," she said.

Mouzone and another Pen Lucy resident, James Tisdale, 41, sought information on how to acquire a house through the Habitat ownership program.

The answer: It's not easy.

Most days, Metzger supervises unpaid workers, who are earning the 300 hours of "sweat equity" required to buy a Habitat house. The process of matching potential owners with finished homes means that purchasers will not likely be drawn from the immediate neighborhood.

Mike Mitchell, Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity's executive director, said the organization chose Pen Lucy because residents supported the strategy and also because the neighborhood had rallied to help curb crime.

Officer John E. Walter, the community relations officer in the Northern District who has worked in Pen Lucy for nine years, said that violent crime fell significantly by 2001.

Israel C. Patoka, head of the mayor's office of neighborhoods, lived in Pen Lucy from 1988 to 1994. He said the area is ripe for an infusion of resources.

"I've always felt Pen Lucy's on the brink of a comeback," Patoka said. "There's a good housing stock, continued improvements to the Old York Road commercial strip and a community center opening soon. This is the start of something good."

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