Vacancies threaten history

Wilkens: Baltimore's longest unbroken residential block is endangered because of unoccupied buildings.

May 17, 2004|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,SUN STAFF

A stretch of Wilkens Avenue known for its solid corridor of red-brick rowhouses that extends for nearly a quarter-mile is in danger of losing its distinction as the city's longest unbroken residential block unless some of its vacant homes are salvaged soon, community members warn.

The 2600 block of Wilkens in Southwest Baltimore has been affectionately known as the "Deck of Cards" because it consists of 52 houses with two end storefronts as "jokers." But the 1,180-foot wall of masonry, punctuated with marble steps, would stand gap-toothed if some of its unoccupied buildings were to catch fire or deteriorate to the point of collapse, said Marty Howe, president of the Mill Hill Improvement Association.

"The historical block is becoming hysterical," Howe said. "We need to stabilize this block."

Three houses on the street are boarded, and several more appear vacant

Melvin Edwards, a spokesman for Baltimore's housing department, said city inspectors assess the condition of such houses only when city crews board them up. In the case of the buildings on Wilkens, the boards are different from those used by the city.

The landmark block and the surrounding Mill Hill community are part of Operation ReachOut SouthWest, a neighborhood improvement strategy approved by the city planning commission. But that program has not specifically addressed Mill Hill's vacancy problems, officials said. And the city's reconstruction to make Wilkens Avenue more attractive, which started two years ago, stopped without reaching the 2600 block.

Rose Grosscup, who moved from Mill Hill to Carroll County in 1981, said City Hall could do more to prevent the neighborhood's slide.

"They are rebuilding downtown but let a neighborhood like this deteriorate," she said.

According to the city Commission on Historical and Architectural Preservation, residences on the south side of the 2600 block of Wilkens Ave. are "the longest unbroken row of houses in Baltimore and perhaps the world." The latter claim is difficult to verify. For instance, Charleston, W.Va., contends that its 1500 block of Virginia St. is the world's longest residential block - measuring 2,286 feet -but it consists mostly of historic detached homes.

Superlatives aside, Baltimore's Wilkens Avenue rowhouses have been celebrated since at least 1952, when A. Aubrey Bodine photographed the seemingly endless line of Italianate two-story houses, each with gleaming marble steps and colorful stained and leaded glass in the door and window transoms.

Some houses retain the original decorative touches.

"It's going downhill real fast," said Dorothy Shoemaker, whose family has lived across from the landmark block for 57 years.

The area's change started in the 1970s, when several slaughterhouses and other big employers began closing. Shoemaker said the historic block across from St. Benedict Catholic Church, the community's institutional anchor, began a deep decline in the late 1990s. Older residents were dying or moving away, Shoemaker said, and their adult children and grandchildren did not want to live in the houses.

Eight years ago, when the city demolished its problem high-rise projects on the west side of downtown, many public housing tenants moved to Mill Hill and Carrollton Ridge, a neighboring community. Meanwhile, large swaths of Wilkens Avenue west of Monroe Street fell on hard times. Scores of buildings became vacant, and fires have been common.

Saying that prostitution, drugs and other crimes are declining, police Maj. Debbie Owens, commander of the Southwestern District, blamed apathy for some neighborhood problems.

"The community doesn't want to help itself," she said. "More community people need to get involved."

The Mill Hill neighborhood, which has about 700 houses, is bordered by Frederick Avenue to the north, railroad tracks to the south, Catherine Street to the east and Gwynns Falls bridge to the west. The community takes its name from the mills that lined the riverbanks in the early 1800s.

Before the area was annexed by the city, it was semirural, containing clay pits, cattle pens and a bristle factory operated by William Wilkens, the dominant landowner.

When the long block was built in 1911 with "all the latest improvements," houses sold for $1,250. Many of the buyers were members of "the working poor," said Patrick McCurley, whose family has lived in Mill Hill for eight decades.

Wilkens Avenue nearly had a name change on two occasions. In 1932, there was an attempt to change it to Sunset Boulevard, and in 1941 the City Council renamed it Crozier Boulevard after a late city engineer. Mill Hill residents protested so loudly that the council reversed itself.

Diane Hoffman, a communicant at St. Benedict's, remembers how generations of Wilkens Avenue homeowners scrubbed their marble steps every Saturday. "My grandmother did it, then my mother, then I did it." She eventually left the neighborhood, moving to Violetville.

As old-timers such as Hoffman talk wistfully about the past, several newcomers say they are happy in Mill Hill.

"I love it," said Wanda Randall, a mother of five, who bought a free-standing four-bedroom house on a side street two years ago for $22,000.

Baltimore's longest block, too, has its die-hards. Among them is Hugh Garris, whose family bought a house there two years ago.

A canopied swing sits on the sidewalk in front of his home.

"If you don't live here, don't sit down," a sign on the living room window says.

Nevertheless, Garris pledges, "I ain't moving."

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