Going either way

Three marginal areas in city have had different outcomes: Canton became a yuppie haven

Reservoir Hill struggles

Middle East awaits wrecker's ball

July 17, 2005|By Will Morton | Will Morton,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Second of two partsAmong Baltimore's many transitional neighborhoods, one made it, one didn't, and one stands on the cusp.

Canton blossomed after dying factories turned into expensive housing while the city restored the waterfront. Two miles north in Middle East, efforts to rejuvenate the neighborhood near the Johns Hopkins medical campus failed as residents fled the area, and much of the neighborhood faces the wrecking ball this year.

Reservoir Hill could go either way. Fabulous architecture is drawing renovation-minded residents, despite the drugs and crime. Plus, residents there complain of "flipping," when investors snatch up cheap houses only to resell them quickly at an inflated price with little or no renovation.

Homebuyers in these three neighborhoods all hoped to pick a winner. But finding the next hot neighborhood doesn't have to be a gamble. Choose neighborhoods close to downtown or big institutions such as universities or hospitals, experts say. Look for public investment in parks, transit or highways. Follow the artists and immigrants, who know how to sniff out a bargain and bring new businesses with them. Great architecture is another plus. Canton turned the corner and isn't looking back.

With good highway access and only minutes from downtown, it boasts a refurbished waterfront. Thanks to city, state and federal subsidies to developers and residents, factories along Boston Street turned into residential housing.

In 2000, 407 houses in Canton sold for an average of $127,295, according to Live Baltimore, an independent nonprofit organization that promotes the benefits of living in the city. Last year 645 homes sold for an average of $246,403, and prices in the first quarter of this year averaged $270,350.

"It's too expensive to live down here now," said Rick Brzozowski, 35, who grew up in Canton but moved to White Marsh five years ago. His grandmother's house - a shell on South Potomac Street - sold for $250,000 in June.

Canton had about 20,000 factory jobs in 1970, said Charles B. Duff, president of Jubilee Baltimore, a nonprofit that rehabilitates houses in the city. By the 1980s, those jobs disappeared. Within a decade, real estate in Canton lost a third of its value, Duff said.

Then in 1993, Nacho Mama's restaurant opened on O'Donnell Square, and nightlife started to develop. In 1996, Safeway opened on Boston Street.

"People started going back to Canton," Duff said.

When Caroline Burkhart bought in 1987, there was no grocery store and hardly any restaurants. "A lot of people thought I was nuts" to buy in Canton, she said.

Ignoring her Roland Park office mates, the former real estate agent and her husband bought a two-bedroom, 3 1/2 -bath rowhouse with two fireplaces and off-street parking for $107,800. She could hear church bells and enjoyed a water view - until high-rises went up across the street.

"Everybody keeps saying, `Oh you should sell and take all your profits,' " said Burkhart, now in her 50s.

If not for the huge public investment in infrastructure and public amenities that attracted people back to the neighborhood, "Canton might have gone the way of Middle East," said Michael Seipp, Baltimore's deputy housing commissioner in the 1980s.

If the city had spent money on Middle East as it did on Canton, it would have created a neighborhood that attracted doctors, nurses and staff who could walk to work at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Seipp said. But instead the neighborhood's depopulated and boarded-up houses became common. The latest rejuvenation effort is now focused on creating a giant biotechnology park.

Located mostly between North Broadway, East Oliver Street, North Milton Avenue and East Madison Street, Middle East saw housing prices plummet from $57,581 five years ago to a current average of $45,231, according to Live Baltimore.

The neighborhood's problems reflect urban America, but with a Baltimore twist. The city's last wave of newcomers came from the American South between 1940 and 1960, Duff said. A generation later, the children of the working class who found themselves with middle-class incomes moved up and out to better neighborhoods, he said.

Nobody replaced them.

The nonprofit Southeast Development Corp. fixed up and sold about 100 houses in the neighborhood, but it wasn't enough.

"They couldn't rebuild them fast enough. People were moving out of the neighborhood faster than they could get people to move in," Duff said. "They were trying to buck that tide, and they didn't succeed."

The effort put into those houses never spread, said Ruth Crystal, a housing activist involved in Middle East.

"A hundred houses scattered around doesn't save a neighborhood that has 1,200 houses," she said.

Another problem was the city's crack cocaine epidemic of the late 1980s.

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