Community building on faith

Oliver: Neighborhood churches unite to revitalize a city neighborhood scarred by vacant lots, abandoned buildings and poverty.

October 16, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Every Sunday for the past five years, the Rev. Calvin E. Keene has asked the members of Memorial Baptist Church to contribute to a special offering to benefit the church's blighted East Baltimore neighborhood.

"I told them that because we are a community church, we had to become a force in rebuilding Oliver," Keene said. Their response was a steady stream of contributions averaging about $2,000 a month.

Tomorrow, the results of their largesse and that of the congregants of half a dozen other area churches will be announced at a 4 p.m. rally at the church, at North Caroline and East Preston streets.

Keene and heads of the other churches, part of the citywide social action group Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, will proclaim that they have raised $1 million and have taken control of about 200 abandoned properties throughout the neighborhood. It's the first step in a community-driven redevelopment plan that they hope will eventually include hundreds of new units of affordable housing.

To punctuate the progress of the plan, which was unveiled at a rally a year ago, a bulldozer will begin the demolition of a handful of contiguous vacant rowhouses half a block from Memorial Baptist's sanctuary. The properties are controlled by the church.

That the rally coincides with the second anniversary of an arson fire set in retaliation for complaints about neighborhood drug dealing adds purpose and poignancy to what the churches are doing. The fire killed seven members of the Dawson family.

"The Dawson tragedy caused us to really focus and redouble our efforts," Keene said.

At a separate event related to the Dawson fire, city officials will unveil today plans to turn the family's charred home in the 1400 block of E. Preston St. into a haven for neighborhood children. City, state and federal funds will be used.

In the revitalization effort, church funds are not the only money being directed to Oliver, a badly scarred, nearly all-black community just east of Green Mount Cemetery where 40 percent of properties are vacant lots or abandoned buildings, and more than half of the residents live in poverty.

The city is donating dozens of properties it owns or is acquiring through its Project 5000 anti-blight initiative to the endeavor. The properties are within a four-square-block area in the southeast corner of the community. The city is also contributing $400,000 toward demolition costs.

U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski is scheduled to announce at the rally the availability of $600,000 in federal money for the community's revitalization - $300,000 from a bill she sponsored last year and $300,000 from another bill working its way through Congress.

The sum is 30 percent of $2 million in federal Economic Development Initiative funds initially earmarked for the extensive east-side redevelopment effort north of the Johns Hopkins medical complex, which centers on a biotechnology park.

Jack Shannon, president of East Baltimore Development Inc., the nonprofit overseeing the redevelopment around Hopkins, said Mikulski had asked his organization to work with BUILD on Oliver and that he was happy to do so because none of the money would have come to the city were it not for the senator's efforts.

Oliver residents will be invited to participate in a "homeownership academy" funded with a private grant and designed to help potential low-income homebuyers deal with issues including home repair and poor credit, Shannon said. They also will be eligible for matching funds on savings accounts for down payments from a grant the Hopkins-area redevelopment effort hopes to secure soon, he said.

The Oliver plan will enhance, not detract from, the larger redevelopment effort, he said.

"Where we can appropriately support community leaders in surrounding neighborhoods with community redevelopment activities, it's in our self-interest to do so," Shannon said.

BUILD officials and local church leaders acknowledge that the funds available are a fraction of what will be needed to rebuild the neighborhood, which has lost a third of its population in the past decade.

If all of the abandoned buildings are torn down, they say, there will be room for 1,300 new houses. The initial stage of the redevelopment calls for the construction of 60 houses in the next three years and 200 more after that, said Rob English, an organizer with BUILD.

The organization has been involved in a nearly 15-year effort to build 700 houses in Sandtown-Winchester, some of them available to people making as little as $15,000 a year, and English said that model needs to be used in Oliver.

"We need to create Nehemiah-like housing," he said, acknowledging that subsidies for such housing could cost $25,000 or more per unit.

An improved Oliver is a welcome prospect for residents such as Vonetta Kelly, who lives with her fiance and four children, three of whom suffer from asthma, in a $350-a-month rowhouse on a block where four of 18 houses are occupied.

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