In most neighborhoods, it takes a barbecue, a pool party or a holiday to get residents together. On a recent Friday morning in Baltimore's Belair-Edison section, a trash bin - a giant, empty, dark green one - got the job done.
Almost as soon as the yawning trash receptacle arrived in the alleyway behind Pelham and Chesterfield avenues, at least 25 residents started filling it with unwanted items from their houses and yards, and from the streets and sidewalks surrounding their blocks. By the time the city came to tow it away Saturday morning, the bin was filled to the brim with trash.
Neighborhood stability - and solidarity - is what it's all about in Belair-Edison, where residents are devoted to replacing decay with habitability, to making order where, until not much more than a year ago, urban blight had been commonplace.
Organized for the third time this year by Jill Jasuta and Jim Duffy, residents of Pelham Avenue, the "Dumpster Day" is one example of the kind of activity that's taking place in Belair-Edison, a neighborhood of rowhouses northeast of downtown. In the past two years, residents say, Belair-Edison has become unusually civic-minded. So much so that homeowners who once talked about leaving are mapping out their futures there.
"Jim and I have always tried to get people here involved," said Jasuta, a free-lance writer and four-year resident of Belair-Edison. "But it's just in the past year or so that there's been a new sense of hope and optimism among our neighbors."
Besides Dumpster Day, there are other serious, often small, physical efforts that these neighbors think can help constitute renewal.
Jasuta and Duffy initiated a lighting project on their block last spring. With a grant from the city, they purchased 56 dusk-to-dawn porch lights for their neighbors and got everyone together to install them.
Other blocks followed suit. On Parkside Drive, residents put up 14 lawn lamps, and on Dudley Avenue, residents got together to fix all of the lights on their porches.
Homeowners on Dudley Avenue, who call themselves the "Dudley Do-Rights," initiated a safety procedure for people who arrive home after dark. If they honk their horn - no matter the hour - someone on the block will come out to escort them inside.
On Chesterfield Avenue, often called a "model" block for its well-kept yards and house facades, residents recently started an annual basketball tournament for neighborhood kids.
Most residents credit the recent burst of energy in Belair-Edison to the Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative, a pilot program aimed at stimulating struggling neighborhoods that was begun last year by Mayor Martin O'Malley and funded by the Baltimore Community Foundation.
The program, which targeted nine blocks in Belair-Edison, provides low-cost home-rehabilitation financing and teaches residents how to improve the housing market in their neighborhoods.
The philosophy behind Healthy Neighborhoods is that when residents work together to strengthen their community, the spirit is contagious.
It has to catch on, and hold on, to work. And in Belair-Edison, it's working. In the past two years, the average house price in the initiative's target blocks has risen 6 percent, according to Belair-Edison Neighborhoods Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the area. In those blocks, 50 percent fewer houses are for sale than were for sale in April.
"The amount of activity here is giving people the belief that their neighborhood is improving," said Joan Mitchell, marketing coordinator for Belair-Edison Neighborhoods. "We're not yet a sexy neighborhood like Canton , but we're seeing the kind of changes here that are making people want to stay."
Settled in the 1850s, Belair-Edison was originally part of Baltimore County. Between 1888 and 1918, it was annexed by the city. Most of the two-story, approximately 1,200-square-foot brick rowhouses that line the neighborhood's streets were built in the 1920s. Belair-Edison remained relatively stable until the 1990s, when a group of investors came in and bought up houses by the handful.
In 1998, these investors sold the houses, most of which were in dire need of repair, at low cost. It was a classic case of property "flipping," the purchase and quick resale of houses, usually at a substantial price increase. Because many of the new homeowners couldn't pay for repairs, there were numerous foreclosures.