In a swirling cloud of plaster dust, hard-hat-wearing teenagers armed with shovels, hammers and crowbars went to battle yesterday with the ruined ceiling of a ruined rowhouse on a block that's almost entirely boarded up.
It's a familiar sight in West Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, which has seen an unusual amount of investment from nonprofits that make rebuilding their mission. This is a war against crime and decay, fought with rehabbing tools - and like many wars it is long and difficult. Even after more than 15 years of focused effort, crime and decay have not been beaten back for good.
The rebuilders, undeterred, keep fighting. They believe they're on the winning side.
Despite the flooding rains, about 200 volunteers turned out yesterday for the kickoff of an annual building-blitz week organized by Sandtown Habitat for Humanity. The nonprofit Christian housing organization, which formed in 1989 to replace blight with homes low-income workers can afford to buy, has rehabbed and built 225 homes so far with more than a dozen in the works now.
That's roughly $15 million pumped into 15 square blocks on the north end of the neighborhood where the group focuses. The funds were raised from sources ranging from churches to major local employers.
Allan Tibbels, a neighborhood resident who is co-executive director of Sandtown Habitat, said about 100 homes remain vacant in his focus area, and he hopes to work on them all in the next few years.
Just south of there, Enterprise Community Partners Inc. - a national community development organization started by Columbia founder James W. Rouse - recently finished a 15-year effort to build and rebuild 600 homes with Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development. A sizable chunk of Enterprise's $462 million investment in Baltimore has gone to Sandtown-Winchester, both in development and grants.
And Community Building in Partnership Inc., a nonprofit that runs social programs in the neighborhood, is planning to launch a significant rehab effort of its own: at least 200 homes over three years, said executive director Emmanuel Price.
"You can really see a change in the community," Price said.
Tibbels remembers 1,000 vacant homes throughout Sandtown-Winchester when his family moved there in 1986. "What has happened since then is pretty amazing," he said. "But we have a long way to go, too."
The goal is neighborhood transformation. Like many of the poorest parts of Baltimore, Sandtown-Winchester struggles with basic quality of life. Police recorded an average of one violent crime there daily last month, mostly aggravated assaults. Roughly half the neighborhood's 10- to 17-year-olds have been arrested on drug-related charges, The Sun reported earlier this year.
Kimberly Tucker, 31, who bought a Habitat house nearly two years ago, said someone was fatally shot across the street from it this month. Though a Baltimore City Police Department spokesman says crime isn't nearly as bad in Sandtown-Winchester as it once was, Tucker has seen violence worsening in recent months.
"Homeowners, they want to move," said Tucker, who turned out to help with the Habitat event. "I was to the point that I wanted to leave, but I figured ... it defeats the purpose."
To Patty Prasada-Rao, Tibbels' assistant, Tucker said matter-of-factly: "It's going to take a lot of work."
"It certainly is," Prasada-Rao agreed.
City records show vacancies actually rising by about 90 buildings over the past four years, to 788 - though city officials say the numbers probably don't paint an accurate picture of which direction the neighborhood is headed. Because homes stay on the vacant list until they're occupied, units being rehabbed count toward the total.
"There's a considerable amount of permit activity in the neighborhood," said David Tillman, a spokesman for Baltimore's housing agency.
The city issued just over 220 residential building permits there in the fiscal year that ends Friday. That's more than twice as many as four years ago. But it's far fewer than in fiscal 2004, when Enterprise was building new homes at a faster clip.
Despite these conflicting signs, Price, with Community Building in Partnership, is optimistic. He said the neighborhood is much neater, nothing like the mess it was seven years ago. Then, "we took over 2 million pounds of trash out of here," some of which had been piled as high as a two-story house.
Private rehabbers are working in greater numbers in the neighborhood now, not just the nonprofits, he said. And the sales price of an average home jumped 50 percent in half a decade to $78,000 last year, according to Live Baltimore Home Center.