City in renaissance doubles as a city fending off decay

January 28, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

SOMETIMES THE city of Baltimore lifts your heart and then bruises it, all in the same day. You listen to housing officials in the morning, and visit neighborhoods once given up as gravesites, and imagine a future promising as morning. Then you stand in a church basement at day's end, and listen to Charles Village residents caught between their fears and their fury, and feel night coming on with a sense of dread.

We are, as always, a tale of more than one city. Parts of Baltimore tremble while previously decayed areas are reborn against all expectations. On the east side, Albemarle Court's 337 new homes, some of them costing close to $300,000, begin to blossom between Little Italy and Lombard Street's old Corned Beef Row, where generations were previously lost in the Flag House Courts public high-rise. On the west side, a neighborhood such as Reservoir Hill, written off for years, suddenly pulls itself from its own ashes.

All of this catches City Hall holding its breath. The deep thinkers throw around the most hopeful real estate figures, and mention promising places such as Heritage Crossing and Poppleton and Broadway Overlook. They point to downtown's west side with the Hippodrome Theatre and the sweeping east-side biotech developments near Johns Hopkins Hospital.

But then comes Charles Village, and nearby Harwood and Remington, whose frazzled residents gathered Wednesday night in the basement at SS. Philip and James Roman Catholic Church to meet with State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and acting Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm.

Which way is the city going? How many cities do we have in one? Even in a time of drug dealers slaughtering each other, it's a city where so many signs point to better days. And other troubles seem intractable.

So start with a few promising numbers. Five years ago, the average price of a house in the city was $69,555. In the first six months of 2004, it was $124,892. Three years ago, the city handed out commercial permits worth $23 million. Last year, $488 million. Across the 1990s, Baltimore lost more people than any major city in America, and more of its job base and revenue base than any big city. Now we have $6.6 billion in development going on, much of it in places previously considered beyond hope.

"No question, there has been a change in perception about Baltimore," says Doug Austin, the housing department's deputy commissioner for development. "For a long time, we were viewed as an industrial city well into its decline. Nobody wanted to live here or invest here. Now developers and homeowners see this as one of the best-kept real estate secrets on the East Coast. Ten years ago, you had to twist people's arms to come here. Now we have developers from New York and California and Florida coming to us every day. Every day."

Some of this is pure economics. Dragging forlornly behind the rest of the country through the 1990s boom years, the city now finds itself fat with marketable real estate. Would-be homebuyers from the Washington area salivate at the housing prices here and figure the commute is not so bad.

But there's also a generation of young adults who grew up in nearby suburbia, discovered the city's waterfront-area charms as they partied through high school and college, and are now opting for the city's energy, its edginess, its cosmopolitan mix instead of shopping-mall numbness as they look for places to live.

The question, in the new Baltimore, is this: In the continuing cycle of deterioration and rebirth, where does the balance fall? It's one reason why Charles Village is so important. It's one of the city's jewels, a community of racial and cultural mix, of the Johns Hopkins University and the Museum of Art -- but a place where, in the last few weeks, they've shuddered over the killing of a Hopkins student, the fire-bombing of a community activist's house in nearby Harwood, a triple-murder at a group home in nearby Remington and, over the past year, an infuriating rise in property crimes.

Wednesday night, some of these residents vented their emotions pretty vividly for Jessamy and Hamm. They understood Hamm's declaration that violent crime is his department's top priority -- but want attention paid to burglaries and teenage thugs and daily car break-ins.

"My house was broken into on my wedding day," one woman said.

That's not the same as murder, but it kills the human spirit. And it makes everyone remember: The city is always a work in progress.

Take Reservoir Hill, for example. "Three years ago," Austin says, "we couldn't get anybody to buy there. We tried to sell six houses. We sold one. They were all shells. A year ago, we put 15 shells up for sale, and a thousand people showed up to look them over. They went almost immediately. The prices ranged from $5,000 to $50,000, but the purchasers all put between $120,000 and $150,000 into renovation costs."

Why the change? "A holistic approach," he says. The city has bought up thousands of vacant properties, sometimes everything available in individual neighborhoods, and worked with community groups to develop them.

"In the last two years," says Ken Strong, director of the city's Office of Homeownership, "we've increased residential rehab permits from $20 million to more than $90 million. What happens is a tipping point. We used to talk about tipping points in terms of deterioration. Now it's about neighborhoods coming back. People see it, and they want to be a part of that upswing."

It sounds promising. You visit some of these neighborhoods, and it lifts the heart. But then you hear from folks in nervous Charles Village, and the heart sinks. We are, in so many ways, a tale of countless cities inside one.

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