Resurgence of Patterson Park is a city success story

Urban Chronicle

October 06, 2005|By ERIC SIEGEL

As the crowd started breaking up after Mayor Martin O'Malley's announcement last week at Patterson Park that he was running for governor, Ed Rutkowski couldn't suppress a smile.

"I guess the mayor likes what we're doing," said Rutkowski, the founder and head of the Patterson Park Community Development Corp.

The mayor never mentioned Rutkowski or the development group. He didn't have to. His selection of the neighborhood as the backdrop for a speech in which he criticized the state as being "adrift" while highlighting his own achievements during his six-year tenure as mayor was endorsement enough.

It was the second time in two years that O'Malley had used Patterson Park as the backdrop for a major announcement. Last fall, the mayor came to the Southeast Baltimore community to promote revised census figures showing that the city's half-century population loss was leveling off.

And why not? An ailing neighborhood through the 1990s, Patterson Park is the kind of non-downtown, non-waterfront urban success story that provides the perfect counterpoint, if not the absolute refutation, to those who want to portray the city as a repository of violent crime, poor schools and rundown neighborhoods.

Since its founding nine years ago, the Patterson Park corporation has renovated more than 300 vacant houses for sale or rent, according to Rutkowski. Five years ago, the average sales price for homes was $71,000; this year, it is projected to be $288,000.

Where once the nonprofit group stood alone in renovating properties, it is now joined by a bevy of private developers. On a walking tour this week, similar to one he took me on for a story on the neighborhood four years ago, Rutkowski pointed to a block of Streeper Street north of the park where the group is renovating four rowhouses and private contractors are working on 11.

The corporation is expanding its reach, in terms of its projects and its geography. It is renovating a vacant drugstore building across from the southeast corner of the park to lease as a restaurant and has plans to turn an empty shoe repair shop into a coffee shop, across from a newly opened charter school.

And in a project dubbed Library Square, the group is tackling a 12-square-block area north of the park. It focuses on a derelict commercial corridor along East Fayette Street and Pulaski Highway that includes the local branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library; next week, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski will announce an award of $500,000 in federal money to spur the work.

The lesson in all this?

"If you have the right strategy in the right place, you can succeed in neighborhood recovery," Rutkowski said.

In Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello, a neighborhood bordering Clifton Park in Northeast Baltimore, that strategy, and that success, has yet to be found.

It was on the edge of this community that O'Malley launched his first campaign for mayor, in the summer of 1999. Unlike his announcement at Patterson Park, the choice was not a compliment. The two-term councilman was kicking off a crusade against drugs and crime, and this was the backdrop.

Six years later, a police camera a stone's throw from where O'Malley first announced for mayor stands as a testament to the fact that the problems have yet to be solved -- not here, anyway.

Charlie McNeill, a retired construction worker who lives on The Alameda half a block from the park, said things aren't that much different from his vantage point. "It's about the same," he said. "Maybe a little quieter."

A block away, Eleanor Alexander, a retired nurse, agreed. "It's a little better, not a great deal," she said.

The front porch of the rented house she has lived in for 20 years stands across the street from a string of a dozen or so boarded-up houses, broken by a handful of occupied ones. "This block hasn't changed," she said.

But some things have. Tonight, O'Malley is scheduled to appear at a ceremony to turn on a string of lights around Clifton Park, a safety measure that is part of $2 million worth of park improvements.

Mark Washington, executive director of the community's development corporation, said violent crime is down 12 percent so far this year. Two months ago, he said, Friends of Clifton Park, patterned after Friends of Patterson Park, was formed. In three weeks, the community, aided by the city's recreation department, will plant trees along the edge of the park, and he expects that city planners will issue their vision for the area next month.

Washington acknowledges that vacant housing is a major problem but said his group is actively marketing the community, stressing the presence of City College high school and the 18-hole golf course, swimming pool and tennis courts in the park.

He said his group -- which operates on a budget of $90,000 a year, about 1/30th of its Patterson Park counterpart -- looks to Rutkowski's development corporation as a model of what can be done.

"We believe we're an undervalued community," he said. "We need the powers that be to fully recognize that potential."

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