Mark Parker's son, Luke Parker, 2-1/2 (left) peers through… (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
As I walk around Baltimore, it has become apparent that the city is on an upward swing. I see more people out on the streets and living in places that once seemed underused or headed for trouble. Streets and places I once considered dangerous are not scaring people away.
I was not surprised at this week's news that Baltimore, after losing population for decades, has added about 1,000 new residents.
I asked myself: Who are these people? Then I sought some help from city planner Chris Ryer, who heads Southeast Community Development Corp. Based on enrollment in his group's homeownership classes, people want to buy homes in Highlandtown and Patterson Park. He said the head count in one of the classes had tripled from a year ago. He has added a Spanish-language class, too.
We talked about how this population stability has brought a new confidence to those who are putting down deep roots in Baltimore. Ryer also suggested a trip to a local Lutheran pastor's home.
I was soon speaking with Mark Parker, who with his wife, Christine, and 21/2-year-old son, Luke, are part of the reason that Baltimore's population has stabilized and in fact begun to grow. They live on South Highland Avenue in a renovated, two-story classic Baltimore rowhouse.
Mark, 31, has a congregation of about 250 people, mostly based in Highlandtown, at his Breath of God Church at Pratt and Clinton streets. He's also a Baltimore native, raised on Lee Street in Otterbein, and is part of the new demographic statistic: He chose not to leave Baltimore.
"What I like about living here is that this is the most diverse neighborhood in Baltimore," he said. "It's Latino, African-American, white and black, with an international refugee population, too. On the same block, there are Johns Hopkins Ph.D.s and people on Section 8 housing vouchers. People are making a conscious effort to stay and not leave."
He expanded on his thoughts about what he sees as the stability that Baltimore is experiencing.
"Today there is a sense you are not in the city alone," he said. "There is a new critical mass, a sense of collective identity and commitment."
He goes around the city and sees that many more neighborhoods than Highlandtown and greater Southeast Baltimore are attracting new residents. He mentions Hampden, Waverly, Remington, Penn Station, Hamilton and Mount Vernon.
"The playing field where people have a positive experience has expanded," he said. "There are just a lot more neighborhoods in Baltimore today where people can consider living. No longer are the choices merely places within a few blocks of the water."
He says he is encouraged by what he sees regarding the city's public schools.
"We want to find a way to make public schools work," he said. "That is possible because there are a lot more options, zoned public schools and charter schools across the city. The ideal would be to have a great local public school wherever you live. But I see a strong commitment to help make that happen."
He said it was not unusual for a family to apply to "five or 10" of the city's charter schools. He also commented on how different this experience is from his own. As a child living downtown, he attended all 12 years at St. Paul's School in Baltimore County before going off to the University of Maryland and a Philadelphia seminary. Some 20 years ago, his parents drove him to St. Paul's and his twin brother, Andrew, to Loyola Blakefield.
"Personally and spiritually, this is where I am supposed to be," he said of his life on Highland Avenue. "Hey, people are pumped up here. There's a Harris Teeter and a Target coming to Boston Street."