Honors won't revive needy neighborhood

Urban Chronicle

Attention: There's a library exhibit and a request for a historic title, but no one's restoring Lafayette Square's boarded houses and dying trees.

May 27, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

THE ENOCH Pratt's Central Library is presenting a six-week retrospective on West Baltimore's Lafayette Square in its main hall. The Maryland Historical Trust is recommending that a large swath of the west side that surrounds the square be put on the National Register of Historic Places. Environmental researchers are mapping the area as part of a project on urban watersheds.

Arlene Fisher, a longtime resident and community activist who lives a half-block from the square, is not averse to the attention but says that more than notice is required to restore the area with a rich past and needy present.

"Everybody's coming all of a sudden," she said, "but nobody's bringing any money to do anything."

Rich with history

The Pratt exhibit, presented by Baltimore Heritage and several partners with text and photos on a number of signs, offers a social look at neighborhood racial change that is instructive for anyone who believes the phenomenon began with the explosion of the suburbs after World War II.

Built in the mid-1800s as one of several squares to encourage people to move out of downtown, Lafayette Square became a favorite "outlying destination" for the city's moneyed class. But by the early 1900s, the exhibit tells us, the square couldn't compete with new residential developments such as Ten Hills and Hunting Ridge.

"Between 1910 and 1930, all but two households on the Square had changed and a new generation of residents had emerged, 95 percent of which were African-American," according to the exhibit. Though it was for years home to many black professionals, many single-family houses were carved into apartments.

The Sellers Mansion, built on the square in the 1860s as a residence for the head of the North Central Railway, encapsulates the neighborhood's shift and ultimate decline. When built, the three-story detached brick house "rivaled its suburban contemporaries in size, quality of craftsmanship and attention to detail." Today, it "stands vacant and in an advanced state of deterioration."

Fisher said the grandeur of the houses is part of the challenge as well as the appeal. In 1984, she bought a vacant rowhouse for a dollar, three doors down from where her grandparents lived, and spent $70,000 to fix it up.

Fisher, who lives next door to a boarded-up rowhouse and looks across the street at two others, said it could cost twice that much today to renovate properties.

Where's the money?

Debra Keller-Greene understands the problem. She is a board member of St. John AME Church, one of four historic churches on the square that were built in the 19th century.

The church is trying to raise funds to assess the cost of refurbishing the deteriorating green serpentine stone on its exterior, which could cost as much as $500,000.

The church also owns a boarded-up building next door that it would like to renovate for a family center or expanded Saturday school academy but hasn't been able to get the money to do so. "It was a much larger undertaking than we had anticipated," she said.

Creation of the Old West Baltimore Historic District could provide some help. The district was approved by the Maryland Historical Trust last week but still needs the nod from the city and the National Park Service. It covers about 6,000 buildings in several neighborhoods -- Harlem Park, which includes Lafayette Square, as well as Upton, Sandtown, Druid Heights and Madison.

Its establishment would make commercial properties eligible for federal rehabilitation tax credits and businesses, nonprofit groups and homeowners eligible for state grants.

"It's something other neighborhoods have used to great advantage," Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage, said of the credits.

"It would help," agreed Fisher. "But are there going to be grants to help people do these things? We have these big, beautiful houses. But who's buying them and fixing them up or giving us money? That's what we need. We need homeowners."

Immediate concerns

Last week, Fisher, Hopkins and Keller-Greene met at the square with a couple of researchers from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County who are working on a project known as Watershed 263. "Can we save the [Chesapeake] Bay by greening the city?" asked Erle C. Ellis, assistant professor of geography and environmental systems, while explaining the project.

Fisher's concerns are less cosmic and more immediate. In the square, the center of the community and of all the attention, a fountain is not working and the trees, particularly along the perimeter, are as much in need of help as some of the houses.

"We're having a hard time getting the city to come around and cut the grass, let alone prune the trees," said Fisher. "They're just not being cared for."

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