Competing interests along troubled street

Reservoir Hill: A band of homesteaders hopes for safety in numbers

property owners and speculators hope for bigger numbers.

January 02, 2004|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

Even on a snowy day, when a little girl swirls beneath a flowered blue umbrella and tries to catch snowflakes in mittened hands, there are few reasons to dream about living on Linden Avenue.

Crack vials litter the gutters. Broken windows gape onto collapsed and charred roofs. Sports cars screech by and horns honk, once, for drugs. Shielded eyes peek from pillowcase-covered panes, through slits in plywood front doors.

Here, on the blighted former estate of a 19th-century tobacco heir, a determined group of homesteaders has begun to execute their own brand of neighborhood redevelopment, buying and moving onto a street most people wouldn't give a second glance.

The initiative, called Techbalt.com, is made up of a loose collective of prospective homeowners, including credit-poor computer geeks, construction workers, an attorney, a merchant mariner and a staffer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Several of them have purchased houses in the 2200 and 2400 blocks of Linden Ave. since April, and the group is hoping to buy more.

Techbalt's idea is pretty simple: to resettle en masse so that no one buyer pioneers alone into the unfamiliar landscape of central Reservoir Hill, where crime, disrepair and decades of disinvestment had rendered properties virtually worthless.

The group hopes to reinvigorate the immediate area by planting deep roots in once-vacant houses and pressuring daylight drug dealers, gangs and addict thieves to loosen their hold on the neighborhood.

But Techbalt is not alone in banking on Linden Avenue, a north-south street of about 90 large brick rowhouses and apartment houses.

Out-of-town real estate speculators, small neighborhood investors and the City of Baltimore all own property on the blocks Techbalt is trying to rebuild. Many property owners are clinging to unimproved houses, awaiting a hotter market.

The competing efforts might cancel each other out.

Newlyweds, first house

Leonard Bonarek, the first Techbalt member to buy, knew none of that eight months ago when he paid $15,000 for his first house, a 2,500-square-foot rowhouse in Linden's 2200 block.

He quickly tore down walls and ripped up layers of flooring to begin the slow work of restoring the house to its original condition.

Bonarek, 28, has hit some snags along the way. All of his front windows have been smashed, and robbers have shimmied in six times through a skylight, the basement and the fire escape. One thief exchanged his muddy black sneakers for Bonarek's work boots.

But Bonarek, a newlywed tugboat engineer, remains unfazed.

"If the street stays like this, that's cool," he says, balancing on a joist above the stripped kitchen. "This is my house now. I want to be a part of this place, and I really don't care if it gets better or not."

He is on a first-name basis with the kindly lady next door and another neighbor across the alley.

"The homeowners who live around here have been really nice," Bonarek says. "The renters say, `Oh boy, here come the white people and my landlord is probably going to sell or raise the rents.' Doesn't matter. We plan on living here for a long, long time."

His purchase galvanized other members to settle on Linden - attorney Paul Reyes in August; student Cem Ari in October; and in November, Adam Meister, the cocky idealist who masterminded the Techbalt concept. It was Meister who dubbed the home-buying initiative Techbalt.com, a name he fashioned from his Web site for hometown boosterism.

Until his house is habitable, Bonarek and wife Lena Andi are living across the street in the top floor of the apartment house Meister bought for $41,000.

"I have two things to do: One is to fix up this house and two is to get other people in the neighborhood," says Meister.

But after putting 20 percent down, updating the electrical system, installing locks on all the windows and activating a new alarm system on every floor, Meister, looking a little haggard sitting in his 95-year-old rowhouse, is strapped for cash.

"I have no money," says the 27-year-old self-employed Internet marketer.

Being house-poor means the gaudy red and yellow walls on the second floor won't be painted over anytime soon. Nor will he change the exterior of his brick house, which could use double-paned windows, a fresh coat of paint on the steel porch and homey touches of owner occupation, such as a new front door.

The mangy cat he rescued scares off the mice but is no match for the roaches that poured out of the oven the first time Meister turned it on.

Good and solid

Still, his father, who worked as a city housing inspector 30 years ago, calls Meister's home "a good, solid house."

"I don't want to use the I-word, but he thought it could only get better."

Investment is a dirty word among the Techbalters. Potential members are vetted to cull the quick-buck schemers from the true believers.

William Entwistle, 33, would not have made the cut.

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