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.
"It was awesome to see everyone come out and chuck their junk in there," said Jeremy Coylewright, who spent the morning cleaning the Chesterfield Avenue house he shares with his wife, Megan, and their 3-year-old daughter, Izaiah. "When I get out there with everyone to sweep up trash, I feel like we're adding to the stability of the neighborhood."
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.
The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development purchased the majority of those houses in 1999. With the lure of low-interest rehabilitation loans from Healthy Neighborhoods, many new residents have purchased HUD homes and made plans to renovate.
Dennis Sutras, a history teacher at Polytechnic Institute, bought a HUD house on Ramona Avenue in June. The house's list price was $45,000, but with a teacher's loan, Sutras took out a mortgage for $31,000. With a rehab loan at 5 percent from Healthy Neighborhoods, he's renovating his new house.
"I looked at about a dozen homes, and then realized that I wanted to live in Belair-Edison because it has this great community network," Sutras said. "It's also pretty cozy for an urban neighborhood."
Belair-Edison is bordered by Seidel Avenue on the north, Sinclair Lane on the east and south, and Richmond Avenue on the west. Herring Run Park borders it on the north with 300 acres of green. To the southwest is Clifton Park, home to a municipal golf course. The neighborhood has an ethnically diverse population of about 14,000.
The most notable architectural characteristic of Belair-Edison is its front porches. The porch is the place where neighbors stop to chat, kids play and the elderly sit and read. At dusk, when the porch lights flicker on, residents can see all the way down to the last porch on their block. And in the winter, when the weather is inclement, people travel across porches to visit their neighbors.
Despite the many improvements in Belair-Edison, parts of the neighborhood are still struggling. On Dumpster Day, Ede Taylor, president of the Belair Community Association and a four-year resident of Belair-Edison, was waging her war against trash. With eight students from Catholic High School, Taylor walked all over "4x4," an area of Belair-Edison bordered by Elmley, Ravenwood, Lyndale and Elmora avenues, protesting a proliferation of trash and rats. On her walk, Taylor counted 29 vacant houses that she says are used for trash dumps and drug deals.
Through the neighborhood association, local residents have established a continuing, mutually supportive relationship with city police.
Although residents say the neighborhood has gotten much safer in the past two years, Belair-Edison is still fighting crime (last year, four homicides, 11 rapes and more than 200 stolen vehicles were reported in the area). Five months ago, the city assigned Belair-Edison its first beat policeman, Officer David Blumberg, a 10-year veteran of the force who patrols the neighborhood's business district.
The community association has a safety committee made up of a handful of members who work on crime awareness.
Calling the Healthy Neighborhood blocks "models," Taylor said a lot of improvement remains to be done in Belair-Edison. "There are some areas that we really need to pay attention to," she said. "But I will say that we're definitely going in a positive direction."
Last Saturday, residents of the 3100 block of Lawnview Ave., a street that borders the derelict "4x4" area, got together for a day of house painting. Inspired by the activity on nearby blocks, about 25 residents on Lawnview applied for a paint grant from Belair-Edison Neighborhoods Inc. They are using the paint to touch up the porches and facades of houses on their block.
"Lawnview is not a target block," said Mitchell, of Belair-Edison Neighborhoods. "Their project speaks for the resilience of these residents. They are working to reclaim their neighborhood, and it's a very beautiful thing."