Roland Brown likes to remember old Leadenhall Street and the people who lived there when he was a child: the Harts, Miss Mary, Emma Jane.
They're gone now — dead or moved away, many of them forced out decades ago to make way for a never-realized highway. Brown, 82, now lives on Montgomery Street in the house where his grandfather founded a funeral home in 1909.
His front steps face south into Sharp-Leadenhall, a historically African-American community between Federal Hill and M&T Bank Stadium, where tidy alleyway rowhouses give way to empty warehouses, cracked sidewalks and grassy vacant lots.
"It's two neighborhoods, if you want to know the truth," said Brown, who says he lives in South Baltimore. It's a name that rejects the lines drawn on city maps, which divide Federal Hill from Otterbein and Sharp-Leadenhall.
A recently announced plan to develop a $250 million mix of offices, apartments and stores on a three-block stretch of largely commercial properties there could erase one of the peninsula's most durable boundaries between Sharp-Leadenhall and Federal Hill, just as others in South Baltimore have been rubbed away by time, as well as by rising property values, opportunistic rental listings and eager, early-morning runners.
"I've had the feeling up until this that whatever changes came ... Sharp-Leadenhall still seemed to me to remain basically the same," said the Rev. Lowell Thompson, pastor of Ss. Stephen and James Lutheran Church, who has served in the neighborhood since 1960. "What's going to happen here has the potential, I think, to bring about a major change in the character of this whole neighborhood."
News of the project by Caves Valley Partners, a Towson-based development firm, brought excitement to a community long overlooked for investment, Thompson said. But it also revived memories of the history of the neighborhood, where about 3,000 people were relocated and more than 300 inhabited homes demolished as part of urban renewal efforts between 1968 and 1974.
"Now things are actually going to change, we have to work for that to mean the most positive things for the most possible people," he said.
Established by freed slaves and German immigrants in about 1790, Sharp-Leadenhall was home to important institutions: large churches, the Baltimore Abolitionist Society and the first school for African-Americans south of the Mason-Dixon line. In 1890, more than 4,400 people lived in the area, which included what is now Otterbein.
By the middle of the 20th century, living conditions had deteriorated and zoning encouraged industries to locate there. Families moved, if they could, and the area was targeted for urban renewal, with a proposal to cut Interstate 95 through Sharp-Leadenhall, across the Inner Harbor to Fells Point. About 620 Sharp-Leadenhall families, about 80 percent of them black and many of them renters, were relocated.
Opposition — the fight helped launch the career of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski — eventually blocked the project, but in Sharp-Leadenhall, the damage was done: Between 1960 and 1977, the population dropped from 5,000 to 500. The site of some razed homes became the Otterbein development, and the city offered homes that had stood vacant since the relocations for $1, if a buyer had the finances to fix up the property.
Brown, who remembers when houses rented for $9 and there were eight grocery stores, three funeral homes, a few white families and a fish market in the blocks between Hanover and Howard streets south of Conway, was one of the few forced out who returned.
"Once they started that proposal for the interstate … they destroyed the neighborhood, and it never came back," he said.
Some worry that that legacy of displacement could haunt the Caves Valley plan, proposed for an area between Race and Leadenhall streets, bordered by Cross Street to the north and train tracks to the south.
Those blocks contain just a handful of residences, which could remain, according to Caves Valley partner Arsh Mirmiran. But the promise of revitalization could cause new displacement.
"If you want to look at one community and urban renewal and displacement in Baltimore, this would be it," said Matthew Durington, an associate professor of cultural anthropology at Towson University, who has done research in the area. "If these folks want to come in and do something for Baltimore … who would argue against that? The question is: Is there an opportunity to do this in an inclusive way that maybe hasn't been done before, or are we going to repeat the same story that we've seen in Baltimore time and time again?"
Some signs of change already have surfaced in Sharp-Leadenhall. In 1990, 84 percent of its 881 residents were black, according to census results sorted by the city. In 2010, 68 percent of the 822 residents were black.
Betty Bland-Thomas, a community leader who bought her Cross Street home in 2000, has advocated to keep affordable units in the neighborhood, a position controversial among some homeowners.
"How can we be that close to the Inner Harbor where there were once slaves and not have any kind of black community?" said Bland-Thomas, president of the South Baltimore Partnership. "I think it would be a disservice to Afro-Americans in the United States, as well as a disservice to the history of this community, as well as the living recipients of that history, as well as the city."
At the same time, some say, investment is overdue.
"This is certainly welcome, and not unexpected, but it also has taken longer to come than we might have guessed," said Charlie Allen, a principal at Evergreen Partners, a Maine-based development company focused on affordable housing that took ownership of the subsidized Sharp-Leadenhall Apartments in 2009.
The timing of Caves Valley's announcement reflects a confluence of factors — an upswing in the commercial real estate market, the success of nearby neighborhoods and decreasing crime. The developer also is involved in the Horseshoe Baltimore casino.
The community also lobbied for changes that made it more desirable, including the full-time opening of the Hamburg Street light rail station in 2005 and the designation of the neighborhood north of Cross Street as a historic district.
Changing racial attitudes hover in the background.
"I don't think you have to read too closely between the lines to see there may be an element of the demographics in the neighborhood relative to other neighborhoods around the harbor that dissuaded people from coming here," Mirmiran said. "We don't care what the racial or ethnic or religious makeup of the area is. … We think it's fundamentally great real estate."
Some residents said resistance to developing the area also has come from within the community.
"They normally fight against development because they want the neighborhood, the history, to stay intact, but it's been gone. It's been gone for a while," said Angela Miles, who moved to her Cross Street home in 2000. "As long as we're able to park … I think we won't have any problems."
The Caves Valley plan calls for several hundred apartments, 300,000 square feet of offices, 60,000 to 70,000 square feet of retail, and close to 2,000 parking spaces. The first phase, expected to cost between $80 million and $90 million, will focus on the part of the site closest to the Cross Street Market. Mirmiran said Caves envisions buildings of five or six stories there; taller structures in the eight- to 12-story range would be built toward the train tracks.
The firm, which also worked on 1111 Light Street and Riverside Wharf, is counting on South Baltimore's popularity as a residential neighborhood, as well as trends suggesting businesses want to locate in the neighborhoods where their employees live.
"We're not relocating residents. We're relocating businesses and bringing residents back to the neighborhood," Mirmiran said.
Caves Valley has committed to building a new community center on the parking lot of the nearly 150-year-old Leadenhall Baptist Church.
Community members, including Bland-Thomas, have broached the subject of a long-dreamed-of cultural center that would inform about the neighborhood's history and include affordable residences on upper floors.
Brown, who worked on urban renewal cases for the Department of Housing and Urban Development until 1989, advising owners on how to get fair value for their properties, said he doesn't expect public resistance to the project — as long as there's parking. But he's not convinced the project will benefit current residents.
"No matter what they do down there … nobody from this area is going to have jobs down there," he said.
Others hold out hope.
"If we can erase this invisible line of the haves and have-nots and look at this development as an opportunity to blend in, I think it could be a win for all," Bland-Thomas said.
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.