Hope Rises As The Wrecking Balls Fall

October 04, 2008|By JACQUES KELLY | JACQUES KELLY,jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

Is the future of a new East Baltimore becoming evident on Washington Street just north of Johns Hopkins Hospital?

On a long walk through this decimated and emptied neighborhood, it was easy to see where nearly 1,200 houses (on 100 acres) were knocked down. The empty space created by all that demolition provokes strong emotions. I thought of how the Inner Harbor looked in the mid-1970s or the Charles Center in the 1960s.

While walking up a hill, I looked out at landmarks in the distance - the graceful tower on St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church and the stonework on the former Knox Presbyterian Church. In the distance was the restored tower of American Brewery. An Amtrak train shot through on the embankment that creates a kind of northern boundary to what now resembles a moonscape.

This was not the first time I've seen parts of residential Baltimore bulldozed and carted off to a landfill, but that does not make the experience any easier to watch.

As an 11-year-old, I watched the city acquire and demolish much of Mount Royal Avenue near the Maryland Institute College of Art. It resembled a scene from post-World War II documentaries about the rebuilding of Europe. I recall the ghost towns of the Interstate 70 Franklin-Mulberry corridor of West Baltimore and the emptiness of the condemnation zone along what became Martin Luther King Boulevard.

Back to East Baltimore. What happened to Rutland Avenue, parts of East Chase and Eager streets, and little McDonogh Street? No wonder the people who lived there are worried about returning and the cost of buying one of the new residences.

I thought of the departed industries - Armco Steel, Hoen lithography and Crown Cork & Seal. These rust-belt industries are gone and part of what will rise here is a medical science and technology office park, with laboratory space and many new homes. I took a deep breath, holding out hope that medical science and technology can, over the years, add new jobs in Baltimore. Isn't Hopkins our largest employer?

On a fine fall afternoon, I was reminded of how acre after acre of the Inner Harbor went through a similar metamorphosis. It is unsettling initially to watch the change, but then I spotted carpenters working on a set of homes that are in the initial stages of rehabilitation. A truck dropped off a big load of lumber. Plumbers were unloading new pipes for drains and sewers.

My initial fears began to fade when I smelled newly cut lumber and heard the sound of hammers. In the summer of 2006, by contrast, the smell of old plaster and parts from demolished housing hung over Washington Street.

I thought of the promised new neighborhood, full of renewed residences and jobs. It's not too far-fetched to consider a stop for Maryland's commuter trains at the site of the old Biddle Street railroad station, so workers can get to Hopkins-related jobs here.

Other parts of Baltimore have returned from the brink. So why not here?

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