Building On Fragile Hope

A tenant for the American Brewery building offers reason for optimism, but experts say reviving the adjacent East Baltimore community will require major public investment

A Neighborhood Abandoned


Eric Booker was asleep in his grandparents' house in East Baltimore when his grandfather, Frederick Booker, came to him in a dream. "I need you to take care of Granny," the dying old man told him.

The next day, Eric visited Fred at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "I touched him on the forehead, grabbed his right wrist with my right hand and said, `You don't have to worry about Granny.'"

Twenty-four hours later, his grandfather was dead. That was in 1993. Three years later, Booker left Northern Virginia to move into 1705 N. Washington St., where his grandmother, Leola, still lived and where he had grown up, just around the corner from the neighborhood's most prodigious structure, the vacant, city-owned American Brewery.

Over the next several years, Booker bought nine properties in their block and the one just to the south. He paid prices ranging from $6,000 to $25,000 and set about fixing them up. He took one as his own residence and rented out most of the others, including a former drug stash house.

"Part of me taking care of Granny was to get the neighborhood right again," said Booker, 43, who had held a series of corporate and nonprofit jobs before taking a position heading Baltimore's housing inspection division two years ago.

Booker undertook the renovations during the period of the greatest decline in the area around the brewery. During the 1990s, the population fell at four times the rate of the city as a whole, and the number of vacant properties in the blocks around the brewery tripled. Decades of abandonment by residents, landlords and businesses had left the area almost in ruins.

For Booker to realize his larger dream of improving not just a couple of blocks but the neighborhood at large, it will take much more than the efforts of a few individuals. Many of the streets in the area are worse than his was when he started, with more vacancies and more crumbling buildings.

"How," he asks, "do you bring the neighborhood back if you don't have public and private investments?"

It is a fundamental problem facing many older Rust Belt cities beset by older housing stock, weak local economies and large concentrations of poor people. Like Baltimore, many of those cities have managed to save some neighborhoods, but limited funding and attention have also left them with acres of blight, such as the brewery area.

The abandonment of the blocks around the shuttered brewery illustrates the difficulties of drawing private investment to decayed urban neighborhoods - as well as the Solomonic choice facing public officials. With limited public and private resources, which areas do you invest in and what happens to those left out?

The experience of Baltimore and other cities demonstrates that such areas can be turned around - but at a steep price. At a minimum, urban experts say, it will take an investment of $20 million or more to revitalize the brewery area, a sum that is far beyond anything that is currently being contemplated.

Successive city administrations in Baltimore have largely agreed with Booker that the area will not improve without public intervention, although they have been reluctant to expend substantial resources there. For the most part, the city has taken a beachhead approach to the neighborhood, repeatedly proposing renovation of the American Brewery as a catalyst for revitalization of the whole area.

All such efforts in the past have foundered. The American Brewery has remained empty since 1973, and the process of decay around it has deepened, ensuring that the task of any future revival will be that much more daunting, that much more expensive.

Meanwhile, the city's attentions, and the limited available funds, were shifted to other needy areas of Baltimore, of which there were no shortage.

Now, the city is once again trying to spur the revival of the blocks around the brewery. And once again, it is counting on the American Brewery property to lead the way.

Last fall, Baltimore officials selected a group to redevelop the property as the headquarters of a nonprofit social services agency. It is unquestionably a positive step, but one that residents, urban experts and even city officials agree will not be nearly enough to revitalize the area. Without a more extensive renewal plan, the redevelopment and occupancy of one building - even an enormous one - will not address the deterioration that surrounds it.

"I cannot think of a single example of a neighborhood that turned around because of the rehabilitation of a single property," said Sandra J. Newman, director of the Johns Hopkins University's Institute for Policy Studies. "More wide-sweeping revitalization that affects multiple properties or blocks instead of just one property appears to be a prerequisite for successful neighborhood turnarounds, though even when this is done, success is not guaranteed."

Once-vibrant area

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