Community of Upton plans a rebirth

Neighborhood to hold meeting on proposal to `get it all back'

February 19, 2004|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN STAFF

Driving north on one-way McCulloh Street through West Baltimore's Upton neighborhood, you'll find boarded-up homes and graffiti, but there is also alluring character here.

Unusual pinnacles and other architectural touches adorn the three-story rowhouses and corner churches that seem to hover over the road. A block over is Druid Hill Avenue, a one-way street south, and much more of the same.

"In the past, the plan has been to tear down and reconstruct. But we want to preserve the old Upton as much as possible," said Ernest Green of the Upton Planning Committee. "There's a lot of rich history here."

Tonight, the planning committee will release a full-scale revitalization plan, one so comprehensive that it calls for everything from constructing 2,000 homes to turning McCulloh and Druid Hill into two-way streets to organizing regular outings for street cleaning.

Upton is a small swath of land between North Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Marble Hill, part of Upton, was once a desirable area for middle-class African-Americans, and Upton was a smart location -- close to downtown work and even closer to Pennsylvania Avenue's famous swinging nightlife.

That was before drug activity eroded entire sections of the neighborhood, vagrancy became a lifestyle, homeowners moved away and Pennsylvania Avenue lost its jazzy appeal.

"We have to get it all back," said Green, who has lived in Upton since the 1970s.

The plan calls for finding ways to reclaim the neighborhood's history and drawing attention to landmark churches such as Bethel African Methodist Episcopal, Sharp Street Memorial and Douglas Memorial, as well as to Booker T. Washington Middle School.

Another idea is to have the neighborhood's churches collaborate on a community day care center and a social services office rather than have all the churches compete for funding to run individual places.

The planning committee worked on the ideas for nearly two years. But the most daunting challenge is still ahead: coming up with the cash to implement the plan.

"In my experience, revitalization plans provide a framework for you to go to foundations and go to the city and say, `This is a what we want to do and this what we need,'" said Alfred W. Barry III of the AB Associates planning firm, hired by the planning committee to help draw up the plan.

"You [have] to get the private industry interested," Barry said. "And you try to leverage public money against private money."

Tonight's meeting will be from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Bethel Outreach Center, 1429 McCulloh St.

The planning committee says much of the plan can be implemented in the next five years, but the more costly ventures, such as building and rehabilitating housing, could take longer depending on funding.

Growth is already apparent.

Heritage Crossing, a recently opened mixed-income community of single-family homes that is partly in Upton, represents the only development in the area in at least two decades. But on the outskirts of Heritage Crossing are abandoned city-owned rowhouses.

Barry said addressing the problem of those rowhouses could be the first step in implementing the Upton plan.

"Within a year, I expect the city will have selected someone to start renovating those homes," Barry said.

Turnout at community meetings on the plan has been high, a sign that residents believe there is new hope for Upton.

"This area definitely has more than its share of potential," said Teresa Stephens, president of the planning committee and a longtime Upton resident. "It has some negatives, sure. But it definitely can be a wonderful neighborhood again."

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