Homes that became rooming houses should be reclaimed

July 23, 2005|By JACQUES KELLY

THESE LONG summer evenings allow me a couple of extra hours to walk around the old neighborhood and listen to a few neighbors. It was during a golden sunset this week that I heard, at the corner of 27th and Calvert, that two longtime absentee-owned homes had for-sale signs in front of them. My neighbor Mary hoped that some blessed renovator would purchase them and return them to single-family residences.

I took a deep breath and wished the same thing. One of the dividends of the current city housing-price boom is that some longtime investment properties may be freed up. I envisioned nicely washed windows, tended lawns and gardens and orderly garbage cans. The sale of beautifully restored houses is one thing; the sale of absentee-owned property to a private renovator who will work restoration magic is really good news.

Skeptics say that housing booms in Baltimore tend to come in frenzies of activity followed by stretches of inertia. The block in question has been in the throes of on-again, off- again work since the mid-'70s.

Because I've lived in this neighborhood all my life, I see this as one of the lasting legacies of the Depression and World War II, which battered an old city like Baltimore. This experience made a deep impression on our collective memory. The wartime housing requirements brought us rooming houses and the widespread carving up of homes into multiple-dwelling units.

I watched my own family wince at the sight of houses being chopped into miserable (to our eyes) apartments. Baltimore's 1950s newspapers regularly covered the gory details of deaths in these firetraps. In the rip-roaring days of urban renewal, before the historic preservation movement got going, these stories led to the razing of whole blocks in some neighborhoods. What replaced them, in the 1960s, were blocks of cheesy walkup apartments. It didn't make much sense, but it happened.

No matter how many parts of Baltimore look better today than at any time in my 55 years, all too often that 1950s Baltimore-is-doomed mentality will not evaporate.

I was startled when a family member called to report dropping off out-of-town guests at an Inner Harbor hotel. He asked me why there were so many people out - on this, the very same night I had been walking around Charles Village. My reply was that Baltimore's harbor is the state's new Ocean City. Pratt Street is packed on marvelous summer evenings, even if native Baltimoreans remain incredulous at the possibility.

This summer I've also heard encouraging stories about happy Friday nights at Belvedere Square in Govans, which is out of tourist reach but embraced by Baltimoreans. Do I detect, however, a tinge of guilt when things actually go well here?

I get a kick out of listening carefully to reactions of Baltimoreans, who often act as if it's a miracle that good things happen here. To this I say, it's time we all get over World War II.

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