It might be the biggest cover-up in Baltimore.
And the most unsuccessful.
For decades, the hollow shells of vacant rowhouses have served as the most visible and poignant reminder of city blight, a "Welcome" sign to addicts, dealers and criminals. The 16,400 abandoned buildings mar the landscape, their sagging brick and Formstone walls outnumbering livable and lived-in homes on blocks throughout the city.
Tired residents and overwhelmed city officials - stymied by delayed court hearings, held up by lengthy foreclosure proceedings, frustrated by absent and uncaring owners, hampered by urban scavengers and waylaid by a plodding bureaucracy - have struggled to find innovative ways to make the boarded-up homes look palatable.
The answer: Cover them up.
With artwork of flowers. With different kinds of brick and mortar. With large, taxpayer-funded photos of faux windows and curtains glued over plywood.
But it doesn't fool anyone.
Bill Cunningham owns a vacant rowhouse on Remington Avenue just south of the Johns Hopkins University campus, and he's caught in a years-long battle between Baltimore and federal housing officials over what can be done with a strip of vacant houses on the street.
He pulled up as I walked the block. Someone with a can of paint had decorated the plywood boards, some with flowers; another had drawn pictures of a boy and girl on the second story. At first glance, the scene makes you smile. At least somebody cares to bring some order to the street.
But Cunningham, who mistook me for a government official who had a solution, just shook his head in dismay when I asked him about the art. "It's just another boarded-up building," he told me. "And when you have boarded-up buildings, it's a mess. It doesn't matter what they paint on it, it's not good for the neighborhood." He'd like to see the houses refurbished and sold.
I drove around the city looking at the various methods used to seal vacant houses. On the east side, where Hopkins is redeveloping vast areas, they've torn down block after block of decaying real estate and are busy rebuilding, one real sign of life rising from the rubble.
Other areas still suffer, with homeowners stuck between empty houses, most boarded up in the traditional way: sheets of uniformly cut plywood, secured with screws (making it harder for vagrants and addicts to pry open) and decorated with familiar stenciled words warning that the property is owned by the city and giving a phone number to call if an animal is trapped inside.
Some property owners seal their own houses, filling empty doorways and windows with brick or even large concrete blocks, giving the vacancy an air of permanency, a surrender to the economy and crime, a signal that the neighborhood is forever lost. Others put up boards that don't match the space, like a treehouse built by a child. I saw three empty houses with doors covered by bedsheets.
Perhaps the most innovative is on Aisquith Street just north of East North Avenue, where five years ago a company called Creative Camouflage persuaded the Housing Authority of Baltimore City to give it $75,055 (later increased to $82,555) to glue life-size pictures of neatly trimmed windows and doors and white blinds or curtains to the boards on 14 rowhouses.
The company's owner, Charles W. "Bill" Coleman of Damascus, wanted to expand his project to hundreds if not thousands of other vacant houses here and other cities, but after five years he hasn't gotten far. He told me cities such as Cleveland have expressed interest.
Of Baltimore, the 65-year-old Coleman said, "They've been a little slow about coming through with the projects," and he pointed me toward his signature work on Aisquith Street, where "it looks like people live in all those houses, even though there are only four people living on the block."
Coleman's idea was once trumpeted by then-Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration as a temporary way to "mitigate the pain" of living next to empty properties, but the Dixon administration is greeting the idea with little enthusiasm.
City housing officials renewed Coleman's contract in 2007 for another $75,000, but spokeswoman Cheron Porter said he gets paid only when he finishes work.
"It's pay-as-you-complete," Porter said, noting that Coleman has yet to finish a vacant school building on Guilford Avenue and that in the past two years, he has "only submitted two invoices," one for $7,380 and another for $990.
Two years ago, about the time Coleman got his contract renewed, the city shifted responsibility for vacant houses from the housing department to public works, and the new overseers of the city's empty rowhouses are not too keen on gluing false fronts to buildings.
A manager, said public works spokesman Bob Murrow, "felt the price was kind of expensive. She didn't see this as very effective. ... It's not going to fool anybody."
Meanwhile, the photos of the doors and windows on Aisquith Street are torn and falling off. Nothing has improved on the block for five years; in fact, it looks worse now than it did then, because the brick steps on many of the houses are now simply piles of rubble and the fake trimmings now add to the blight.
On one house, a city housing inspector plastered a red "condemned" sign on top of the picture of the fake door, a reminder that the cover-up can't mask reality forever.