Building, maintaining strong neighborhoods

Associations work to build pride in and the appeal of the city neighborhoods they represent

August 28, 2005|By Will Morton | Will Morton,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Most neighborhoods with strong or improving reputations have at least one thing in common: a vibrant neighborhood association or community group.

These groups often help stabilize neighborhoods that were teetering, experts say, preventing further slides and turning around a community's outlook. Through beautification efforts, public safety groups, newsletters and festivals, associations often help boost neighborhood pride and exposure among homebuyers and others.

"We're no longer talking about stemming decline," said Cheryl A. Casciani, programs director of the Baltimore Community Foundation, a charity organization. "Now we're talking about how to get people to come to the neighborhood."

Early on, neighborhood groups help grab the attention of Realtors who would steer their clients elsewhere. As transitional neighborhood groups mature, they try to provide what a Realtor can only talk about - a welcome warm enough to make people want to move there.

Many neighborhoods set out with the goal of drumming up community spirit, then use an association as a selling point. Pride-building activities across Baltimore include making window boxes and holding potluck dinners for rehabbers. Some communities rally by forming neighborhood watch groups to reduce crime. Other neighborhoods use less conventional means, handing out welcome kits, putting on a dog show or staging pig races.

Neighborhood events not only strengthen the neighborhood's social fabric, community organizers say, they bring out new leaders and volunteers. They also can help boost curb appeal to home shoppers.

"What may really close the deal is the sense of a welcoming community that they get at the community association level," said Tracy Gosson, executive director of Live Baltimore, an independent nonprofit group that promotes city living.

Today's neighborhood groups have replaced the less formal setup of a bygone era, said Michael Anikeeff, chairman of the Johns Hopkins University real estate department.

Grandmothers watching children from the front porch used to be the eyes of the neighborhood. Residents used to gently tease neighbors with overgrown grass, asking if there was illness in the family.

Now, two-income households keep many residents at work more and home less. That means somebody else is often keeping the community safe and well-maintained - the neighborhood association.

"It's not as good, [but] it means you have somebody worrying about it," Anikeeff said.

In Garwyn Oaks, a West Baltimore neighborhood along the Gywnns Falls Parkway, children used to move to the suburbs when they grew up - and remain there. Now one of the neighborhood's major selling points, leaders say, is that those grown-ups are moving back.

`Got neighbors talking'

A community workshop in 2001 got Roslyn Avenue homeowners to replace the lattice that skirts the front porches of their large two- and three-story houses. The project helped residents meet one another and triggered future endeavors.

"It definitely got neighbors talking to neighbors," said Mereida Goodman, executive director of the Garwyn Oaks Housing Resource Center, an outgrowth of the neighborhood association. It also got them talking about rehab loans to fix up their houses.

As a result of the lattice project, $5,000 was spent to landscape 60 homes on two streets the next year. In 2004, the neighborhood spent $2,200 on flowers and materials for 140 window boxes.

"The proof in the pudding is that this year we didn't do that particular project, but people went ahead and planted their boxes anyway," Goodman said.

The neighborhood pride projects are helping. (Baltimore's hot housing market and more spending on marketing helped, too.) From 2001 to last year, the median sales price for a home in Garwyn Oaks nearly tripled, to $99,999, according to a report by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance. The number of days it took to sell a home in the area fell from 150 to 13.

Several community activists credit the mayor's Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative and the Baltimore Main Streets programs for helping stabilize their neighborhoods and giving community groups the money and training they need to be effective. Healthy Neighborhoods spends about $350,000 a year on the 10 neighborhoods it supports.

Trying different tactics

Across the city, neighborhoods are trying different tactics to drum up community spirit. Fells Point in 2003 and 2004 handed out new-resident welcome kits with tour information and listings of businesses and specialty shops in the neighborhood. Some communities are creating Web sites or sponsoring promotional tables at events such as Artscape. Others are starting newsletters, such as in Greektown, which started publishing quarterly in 2002.

Just north of Mount Vernon in Midtown, the neighborhood association hosts dinners every few months for new residents who are renovating their homes. Homeowners meet and commiserate about the agony of renovation and pass on references for good roofers or architects.

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