Finding a Way

Leaders and residents offer possible cures for the American Brewery neighborhood

July 16, 2006

In recent decades, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in Baltimore redevelopment, and those investments - combined with positive economic trends - have sparked a wave of privately financed revitalization in neighborhoods across the city. From Locust Point to Charles Village and Hampden to Highlandtown, housing prices have soared and commercial development has followed.

But neighborhoods across Baltimore - nearly 20 percent of its residential area, according to the city's estimate - remain mired in blight. The community around the old American Brewery, for instance, is filled with abandoned and neglected homes and struggles with addiction, crime, poverty and despair.

Two weeks ago, a two-part series in The Sun laid out a grim assessment of the near-term outlook for the brewery neighborhood, which lacks many of the features that have made others attractive targets for rehabilitation.

While a tenant has been found for the looming American Brewery building, city officials say they lack the millions of dollars needed for investment that might quickly spark a neighborhood renaissance. The limited redevelopment capital available would be better spent in places with more immediate potential, city officials say.

What can be done now to improve neighborhood residents' lives and raise hopes for a brighter future? That's a question we asked an array of Baltimore community and political leaders and average citizens alike.

Their answers reflect a realistic understanding of the challenges that the neighborhood and others like it present, but they are also surprisingly hopeful. Here is what they had to say:

First, get started Ed Rutkowski Executive director, Patterson Park Community Development Corp.

Ilooked at 16 square blocks surrounding the brewery building, an area large enough to matter, with clear boundaries. Geographically, it's an interesting place, and geography is a major component of any rational renewal strategy.

Going for this neighborhood are the Struever Bros. redevelopment of the brewery building [and] Humanim, the large human services nonprofit that will bring 250 jobs to the building. That, with the participation of some committed neighbors, just may be enough, so the first thing is to get started.

Getting started means forging a partnership between the neighborhood's residents, Struever Bros., Humanim and the city. The partnership should sow the seeds for neighborhood improvement. As examples, Humanim should earmark some of their services for neighborhood residents; security should extend a block or two from the brewery, improving safety for both staff and residents.

Struever and Humanim can also leverage their activities to build social capital, for example, engaging and helping residents to beautify the significant amount of nearby green space, making the statement that "someone cares about this place" and energizing the residents to change their neighborhood.

Finally, what do we do about the vacant and boarded houses? Again, it's more of a matter of getting started than trying to find the very expensive answer that makes everyone happy. I'd suggest a variation of the early Patterson Park CDC strategy, taking advantage of the opportunity presented by many largely vacant blocks and fewer strong blocks.

Energized residents pressure the city to condemn the very worst blocks, even if a few of the houses are occupied. At the same time, community developers purchase as many properties on the healthier blocks as they can, using loans and investment dollars instead of subsidies.

Then, those developers modestly renovate the newly purchased properties, to a level a bit better than the currently occupied properties. They pay people to move from the weakest to the strongest blocks. Finally, the city demolishes the now-vacant blocks [to provide] more green space and future development opportunities.

At the end of the day, we get stronger strong blocks, fewer weak blocks and more green space as the weakest blocks are demolished. And existing residents get to stay in a neighborhood with more promise.

Improving self-image Nikki L. Rochester Neighborhood resident

The physical appearance of a community is more often than not a reflection of the self-image of its residents. The litter, abandoned garbage, rampant weeds and mindless destruction of property doesn't make a very positive statement for our neighborhood. But I believe that area churches, with some support from the city, could facilitate a significant change of image.

We have to CARE in concrete ways about our neighborhoods!

We have to stop throwing our newspapers, chicken boxes, soda cans, beer bottles and candy wrappers in the streets and gutters of our community.

We have to stop putting out our trash in ways and at times when it will be ravaged by dogs and strewn through the alleys.

We have to stop dumping our old furniture and broken refrigerators on the nearest vacant lot.

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