That empty feeling returns as still another chunk of Baltimore bites the dust

July 22, 2006|By JACQUES KELLY

The smell of old wood and sandy brick mortar hung over the corner of Wolfe and Ashland one humid morning this week. It was almost like a fire, but there was no carbon odor amid the dust of East Baltimore.

Here, a couple blocks north of the main Johns Hopkins medical campus, wholesale demolition has begun on what seems like acres of rowhouses. The much discussed Forest City-New East Baltimore Partnership project is well under way.

I thought I'd better take a last look while this chunk of Baltimore disappears. And it was the first time in my life that I'd walked along these blocks of East Chase and Eager streets. At the rate these time-worn old places are going down, I think there will be nothing left within a month. The scene gave me a chill.

I get a feeling of a man-made catastrophe and isolation when an entire swath of houses - the little alley houses, too - are vacated, boarded up, screened off by chain-link fences. Worse yet, they carry signs saying they have been treated for rodents.

This isn't the first time I've experienced this jarring sensation. I recall the fall of 1961, when, as a grade school student taking some Saturday classes at the Maryland Institute, I watched Mount Royal Avenue being demolished for urban renewal. A few years later, blocks of West Baltimore fell for the Interstate 70 and Martin Luther King Boulevard condemnation and construction.

This week, once my ears became accommodated to the background noise of the heavy equipment - the sound a backhoe's engine competed with the toots of a passing MARC train a few blocks distant - I walked through this urban dead zone and listened for sound.

Two skinny feral cats that had probably been living in vacant houses darted around, looking lost and pathetic.

Very few cars passed. There were no other pedestrians. And why is it that when all the houses are knocked down, the demo guys spare the backyard trees, making for one surreal landscape.

I can't say I knew people who lived on these blocks, but there is no missing the message that lives were heavily disrupted for all this urban upheaval, even if many of the homes were vacant and abandoned.

Wait a minute. Didn't we tear down many nearby blocks to the west of Broadway in the 1960s and rebuild the area in the 1970s? I took a bus home that traveled along Madison Street and observed how we reconstructed this section. It looks like parts of Howard County's Columbia moved downtown, but that's because both places were up at the same time. And while I know great things are promised for this building site - 900 new housing units, a biotech park and more - the sight of it all happening is sobering.

If you own an old house in Baltimore, you know it is a demanding mistress and wants repair all the time. The houses near Hopkins looked as if they had been worked long and hard and, because of the laws of urban economics, had not been repaired much. I am sure the owners knew that it would be only a matter of time before the wrecker arrived.

I stood and watched a crew take down a block of Durham Street. It took about 14 minutes to raze a two-story rowhouse. The entire block was rubble by the next morning.

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