Taking A West Baltimore Neighborhood to New Heights
By Sam Hopkins
Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Kelly Little points toward a building, indicating a back lot I can’t see behind a Burger King I can’t see but I can certainly smell.
We’re just off of North Avenue, the East-West thoroughfare that once marked the border between Baltimore City and Baltimore County. Cutting clear across the city, the homes that line the wide street have seen prosperity and tumult, sun in the mornings and fire at night. Some of the old homes are gone, and some have been overtaken by nature.
“Right there is one of the last true pieces of urban jungle in Baltimore,” says Little, the head of the Druid Heights Community Development Corp. We work our way across Gold Street to see the backs of several rowhomes on Druid Hill Avenue joined by a network of vines and young tree canopy. Little and many of his peers are working to restore this area as a gateway to Druid Heights.
A foray into Druid Heights feels a lot safer and more pleasant today than it would have ten years ago. In the alley off Gold Street there were shanties—not dilapidated rowhomes, but lean-tos made of metal and cardboard scraps. Open fires roared, drugs were dealt and used openly, and prostitutes sold what they sell. Other blocks and alleys were simply no-go areas given over to drug dealers.
“One church, one block, one person at a time, and it’s happening,” says Elder CW Harris of Newborn Holistic Ministries. He runs a faith-based operation that is partners with Druid Heights CDC.
Not that the problems have gone away entirely, but they are interruptions rather than a steady set of sights and sounds that serve as a setting for daily life. Little has to remind himself of how it used to be sometimes. His organization has operated for nearly four decades and outlasted similar ones in adjacent neighborhoods.
“We have to start with the worst and build out,” he says. And there is plenty to build.
A combination of incentives from stakeholders as diverse as State Farm Insurance, the City of Baltimore’s Vacants to Value program and local churches have helped calm things down. So has a nationwide and citywide drop in violent crime. The CDC has rehabbed homes, promoted the planting of community gardens, gotten homeless people off neighborhood streets and into quality housing, and educated and employed local teens. A major museum and housing development are both in the works
At the western edge of Druid Heights, on Pennsylvania Avenue, is where jazz legends who came to play Baltimore’s big theaters would jam deep into the night at clubs like the Sphinx. Druid Heights CDC is working to build from a strong, positive history as a black cultural hotspot and neighborhood of high-quality homes just west of Bolton Hill.
Druid Heights CDC wants to see a revived Pennsylvania Avenue Main Street and cultural center. It could attain that status once it begins construction on a $4.1 million Negro Leagues baseball museum at 2101 Pennsylvania Ave. in the fall.
The planned Negro Leagues baseball museum on Pennsylvania Avenue is set to include memorabilia of segregation-era black ballplayers and the life they lived, as well as a restaurant and a shop for visitors.
The museum is at the center of the effort to boost the neighborhood’s commercial corridor, Little says. "For real urban living, your commercial corridor is almost as important as residential and everything.”
Roscoe Johnson, Director of Real Estate Development at Druid Heights, says the CDC is preparing to publicize the bid for construction of the museum now that it has secured a federal historic tax credit. Johnson, like Kelly Little and the rest of the staff at Druid Heights CDC, likes to have his ducks in a row as much as possible.
“The idea is that when I put it out for bid I won’t have to wait for the city or feds and there won’t be changes to the developers’ agreement with the city, ” Johnson says.
It’s tough work to get a handle on what still needs to be done. Walking down one alley, Kelly Little points to the backs of two houses where the CDC began work on renovations. The work was halted to allow absentee neighbors to comply with city requests to fix up their properties. Those neighbors started but didn’t finish, which means more legal proceedings.
Other houses had owners who left behind a forensic mystery worthy of a documentary film, rather than a will and testament that would clarify ownership. Kelly and his team have tracked down 33 heirs to one property, scattered from Charm City to California.
Mel Freeman, head of Citizens Planning and Housing Association, a Baltimore non-profit, says the slog is paying off: “Kelly’s work has slowly but surely started to redevelop housing that is really great looking and fits the fabric such as Bakers View,” an 87-home development centered at the corner of Baker and Division streets.
Druid Heights was once full of families that were excited to move into their homes. Those who are moving into Bakers View—the new-construction homes that are fully occupied or under contract—can feel the same way.
Chloe Williams, Director of Housing Counseling and Home Ownership Opportunities at the CDC says the first phase of Bakers View is complete, with dozens of homes already built and bought, and another 20-to-30 coming. The incentive packages available are staggering: With a combination of federal, state and city assistance, new residents only have to finance $109,000 on a sticker price of $225,000, including $10,000 to pay closing costs.
Roscoe Johnson says Bakers View is part of a community-wide plan that was put together by the residents back in the late 90s. The community came together and held many meetings to determine what they wanted the community to look like.
“Part of what came out of that was recognition that they wanted to reduce the number of units in the community to provide places for young people to play, ” Johnson says.
Sam Hopkins is an MBA student at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and Bmore's former publisher. He also deejays around town as DJ Balagan.