Twenty years ago, Baltimore County developers forced Jacqueline Hill's family to sell its home on East Chesapeake Avenue in Towson to make room for new office buildings in the county seat.
"My mother was so upset, she kept saying over and over, 'I don't want to leave, I don't want to leave' ... Now the [District] courthouse is right where my living room used to be," said Hill, 45, a retired administrative assistant who lives in Cockeysville.
Now Hill and others can purchase new homes in East Towson, thanks to a revitalization project that aims to recapture the close-knit feeling of the older, historically African-American community while creating opportunities for middle-income homebuyers.
The project is the result of a partnership among federal and county governments, private donors and community members. The effort includes building new homes and refurbishing old ones over a three-year period to attract new homebuyers to the community.
In all, 15 new or rebuilt homes will be added to this six-block community that sits off the commercial district of downtown Towson.
Residents consider the historic neighborhood of narrow houses with big front porches and well-cared-for lawns a great place to raise children, and many welcome the refurbishing.
Over the years, houses in the community were removed to make way for the growing commercial and municipal development in Towson.
"I like the idea of going home," said Hill, who is considering buying a house in the area now that more homes are being made available. "I get a sense of security there. I want my son to be able to experience some of the things that I experienced growing up, and I want to help bring the community back together again."
The neighborhood of East Towson is bounded by Pennsylvania Avenue on the north, Virginia Avenue on the west, Towsontown Boulevard on the south and Black & Decker Corp. headquarters, on Joppa Road, on the east.
During the first phase of the revitalization project, six houses were built or refurbished on Lennox Avenue, across the street from the Carver Community Center, a historic landmark that has long been the heart of the community.
Each of the 15 houses planned by the project has a prospective buyer. The prices start at $125,000 and grants are provided by federal and county agencies for those who meet certain income eligibility requirements. Also, the buyer must remain in the house for 15 years.
As in most parts of Baltimore County, buyers have been snapping up properties in East Towson as soon as they become available, said Brenda Flagg, a real estate agent with Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. in Towson.
County officials who are overseeing the revitalization hope to create a stable community of affordable housing.
The first residents of East Towson were freed slaves from the nearby Ridgely Plantation. They settled in the area in 1853. Over the years, it became the kind of neighborhood where people sat out on their porches in the evening and waved to each other in the street.
"It was fantastic," recalled Adelaide Bentley, president of the Northeast Towson Improvement Association, who was born in East Towson and has lived there for all of her 74 years.
"Everyone knew each other. All the parents looked out for all the children, whether they were theirs or not. It was a beautiful neighborhood to grow up in, a beautiful place to raise kids," Bentley said.
In 1958, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. erected a substation between Fairmount and Railroad avenues, edging out residential space and creating an eyesore, Bentley said.
During the 1970s, the expansion of the business district in downtown Towson further eroded the residential area.
"It was done without any response from the community. Nobody asked us what we wanted, nobody cared," said Michael Miller Sr., 54, who is a descendant from the first freed slaves who lived in the area.
For 25 years he has lived in his house on East Pennsylvania Avenue, for which he paid $40,000. Miller raised his three sons there.
The style and layout of the new houses on Lennox Avenue recreate the warm environment of years past. The houses mimic the older "shotgun" style homes with their long, narrow structure, front and back entrances, large front porches and gable roofs.
The revitalization process includes a makeover of the neighborhood itself.
County officials and BGE are designing a wall to hide the substation and planting shrubs and trees. The path behind the substation, which has been used as walking path, will be improved, connecting the Fairmount and Railroad sides of the community. Right now, the area has the look of transition, with newer houses coming in next to the old.
When Larry Brown Jr. first saw the neighborhood, it was "love at first sight."
"I like the size, it's more inti- mate. You can get to know each other and build personal relationships. People are willing to greet you and say hello, make you feel warm and welcome. It was a perfect fit at the perfect time," said Brown, 26, a community organizer who will be moving to East Towson from Northeast Baltimore.
Miller is thrilled to see young people like Brown moving into the houses.
"This is a community started by people who were looking for their first American dream," he said. "Now that dream can continue."
Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 20 minutes
Public schools: Cromwell Valley Elementary School, Dumbarton Middle School, Towson High School
Shopping: Towson Town Center, Towson Marketplace, Dulaney Valley Plaza, Towson Commons
ZIP code: 21204Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun