Edward Williams, who has been living in his house in East Baltimore… (Gabriella Demczuk, Baltimore…)
I had a lonely feeling as I walked along the empty, isolated blocks just north of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore. In the distance, a bulldozer was eating away at a block of Patterson Park Avenue rowhouses. The emptied lots reminded me of 1950s urban renewal clearance.
It's been a full decade since redevelopment was announced for this big chunk of Baltimore: 88 acres bounded by Broadway, Patterson Park Avenue, Madison Street and the Amtrak railway embankment. It's the neighborhood that I often viewed from a train window, a spot that seemed to embody 1940s working-class East Baltimore, when there were abundant jobs at the tin mills, paint factories and garment-making shops.
And 10 years ago, it had a residential vacancy rate of 80 percent.
And while there is construction — a building for graduate school housing, a large medical lab and an enormous parking garage — I missed the people who make a neighborhood. I saw vacant blocks — not many new or renovated houses.
Then I met up with Edward Williams, a man born and raised here. My hope for East Baltimore brightened considerably as I listened to his enthusiasm for what promises to be the new world of corners like Wolfe and Eager.
Williams could have left the neighborhood and moved to an Ednor Gardens or a Dundalk. But he elected to stay put in the 1700 block of E. Chase St., around the corner from Elmer Henderson School, where he completed the eighth grade before going on to graduate from Dunbar High.
"I am so relieved that this neighborhood is changing and getting better," he said as we walked along Gay Street.
He could have left the neighborhood and received $180,000 in relocation benefits. Instead, he took the money and put it into the home where he was born, which had been damaged by a fire.
I also spoke at length with Williams' across-the-street neighbor, Christopher Shea, who runs East Baltimore Development Inc., the nonprofit agency funded through the Johns Hopkins University, the Casey and Weinberg foundations and other philanthropies. Shea's group is charged with acquiring those 88 acres and relocating the 732 families who lived there. He is also charged with either demolishing or renovating homes, creating a master plan for growth and bringing in the developers to rebuild the neighborhood known as Middle East.
"We want to build back to the original density," said Shea. "We want to ensure that the people of East Baltimore will have a great place to live. We are building for middle-class Baltimore. The demographic profile of a Hopkins worker is a 45-year-old black female earning $50,000 a year. This neighborhood can be a great fit for her."
He said Hopkins' East Baltimore workforce numbers about 30,000 people. "Hopkins is a very diverse place," he said. "This is an opportunity to build a very diverse neighborhood."
Earlier this month, Shea said, he received the funding for a new $40 million elementary school that will rise at the corner of Ashland and Patterson Park avenues. It will be operated through the Johns Hopkins and Morgan State schools of education. The Hopkins education dean, David Andrews, has moved to this neighborhood.
"We want this to be the best neighborhood school in the state of Maryland," Shea said.
We walked five blocks across the project area's middle section. Only a few of the envisioned new or renovated housing blocks are evident. The housing recession of the past few years dimmed that prospect, much to the annoyance of East Baltimore community leaders. Shea predicts that new housing will arrive.
I walked along Ashland Avenue and heard the hour's chime in the big tower at St. Wenceslaus Roman Catholic Church, another neighborhood anchor. I thought of Baltimore's amazing ability to reinvent itself as the workers prepared the site of the first new public school to be built in East Baltimore in decades.