Turn around gritty blocks, instead of turning from them

January 10, 2004|By JACQUES KELLY

MY CAB DRIVER made me an offer I had no trouble accepting. On the way into the office, he'd drive me through a neighborhood he calls the Twilight Zone, a place of drug dealers and transvestites better known as Barclay Street, south of North Avenue to Oliver Street. True, at high noon on a Thursday, there was a knot of dealers ready to supply the goods. I saw his point about this troubled address, but had a different reaction to what I viewed.

Were the temperature not in the 20s, I might have been walking through this section. On many mornings this past summer, I strolled through here. Crossing North Avenue, at Guilford, I thought to be on the lookout for trouble. Instead, I found people sitting out, wishing me a good morning, and others waiting for buses to go to work. True, there were many dreary houses, with no roofs or doors, reflecting Baltimore's population drain. I was more afraid of what vermin was running around in the trash heaps than I was of the occasional wandering junkie.

Being an eternal urban optimist, I hold a lot of hope for this neighborhood roughly north of Penn Station. Today it has the tough, gritty and dangerous look that makes drivers want to step on the gas and ask no questions.

I say this because I was around when places such as the Otterbein community in South Baltimore appeared in far worse condition than Barclay and Lanvale looks today. I say this because there was far less urban hope around in 1967 when my late neighbor Grace Darin put the name on Charles Village and started beckoning families back to the kind of old-fashioned Guilford Avenue home where I was then living.

In the late 1950s, I watched as tremendous Victorian palace houses along Eutaw Place were yanked down. Today, we would know how to renovate these homes and find people to live in them. In fact, there might even be a segment on HGTV about their efforts.

Speaking of living, my bank teller recently moved into one of the handful of old commercial loft buildings at Guilford and Oliver in the would-be Twilight Zone. His neighbors are city artists homesteading in a former Crown Cork & Seal Co. plant. He too is wary about the neighborhood's reputation for crime, but likes the idea of living there, a block from the railroad tracks and two blocks from Green Mount Cemetery.

In 1950s and '60s Baltimore, I watched as dozens of buildings, similar to the big old brick pile where my teller lives, were torched or demolished routinely for the Charles Center and later Inner Harbor urban renewal.

I think too of people, maybe those with Washington jobs, taking over our vacant or abandoned homes, renovating them, maybe taking a seven-minute walk home from Penn Station.

And as one who is now renovating an old house, I can say this task is no snap. Baltimore would need to mount a convincing campaign to clean up and market the area. But in January, as a new year lies ahead, maybe it's time to set some priorities and make some resolutions. How about a better day for Barclay and Oliver?

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