The pastor is not pleased. It's a Wednesday morning in mid-February, the first promise of temperatures topping 50 degrees in weeks, but it's cold and wet. An erratic trickle of people stops into the basement of the Church of the Guardian Angel at the corner of Huntingdon Avenue and West 27th Street, each one there for the same reason as the last: food.
They collect white plastic bags of provisions — boxes of cereal, cans of vegetables — and head outside again, back into Baltimore's Remington neighborhood. Most are elderly; some linger. For some, this stop at the food pantry isn't just about the ingredients for another few meals.
And that's where Pastor Alice Bassett-Jellema comes in.
One woman, who can't be younger than 60, arrives carrying a property tax assessment. Four years ago, when her property taxes were just north of $800, her house on the 2800 block of Huntingdon caught fire and burned right up to the roof. Neighbors chipped in with sweat equity to repair it. But now, as she shows Bassett-Jellema, pastor at Guardian Angel since 1997, her property taxes top $2,000.
Eyes locked, face resolute, a monthly planner before her with black ink scribbled onto nearly every date box, a large cup of coffee from Charmington's in her left hand, Bassett-Jellema brainstorms with Betsy Childs, a board member of the Greater Remington Improvement Association, as to what the correct course of action should be. Appeal the assessment, the pastor says, before turning to a reporter and laying out the question in plain terms: "There's always unintended consequences."
So here it is: To what effect does a renaissance, real or imagined, have on a neighborhood with a complex history?
By several measures, Remington's renaissance seems real. A decade of steady movement into the neighborhood, by businesses and residents, has changed the landscape and attracted visitors who can easily name popular spots: cocktail bar W.C. Harlan on West 23rd Street, bakery and cafe Sweet 27 on West 27th Street, and, on North Howard Street at the border of Charles Village, the coffee shop Charmington's.
Opening sometime in March, across the street, is Parts and Labor, a restaurant and butcher shop from Woodberry Kitchen proprietor Spike Gjerde. In January, Single Carrot Theatre occupied its new home in about 6,000 square feet of space next door.
Lest anyone forget Seawall Development, the corporation has left its mark throughout the neighborhood — Miller's Court on North Howard, with apartments for teachers and office space for nonprofits; 26 renovated townhouses completed in the last year; the building where Single Carrot resides; and, beginning this year, construction along three blocks on the west side of Remington Avenue, where a five-story building with more than 100 apartments is scheduled to open in summer 2016. Hanging over all this: the specter of a Walmart, the anchor of a redevelopment along 25th Street.
"There is no question there is significant change going on," says Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who has represented Remington on and off since the mid-1970s. "The challenge is to make sure those changes benefit the people who have been living there all this time."
For Remington, the balance between ambitious, much-needed development and its repercussions, on both the character of the neighborhood and the lives of its residents — those who grew up here, and those who are recent transplants — is the matter at hand. But to fully appreciate that balance, a dive into the history is required.
In earlier times, neighborhood residents were laborers. For more than 100 years, as author Kathleen Ambrose recounts in "Remington: The History of a Baltimore Neighborhood," published last year, residents had worked in the quarries, the mills and the factories, and relied on those jobs for their livelihoods. Following World War II, change came fast. Desegregation loomed. Jobs began disappearing. In the 1960s and 1970s, economic downturn "increased neighborhood crime, substance abuse, alcoholism, and a dependence on social welfare programs," Ambrose writes. In 1980 a study found that 80 percent of residents hadn't finished high school. In the 1980s and 1990s, robberies and homicides increased, products of neighborhood drug activity. Unemployment was high. People were moving out.
Since 2000, as Ambrose pinpoints, a turnaround in fortune has characterized a place that holds dearly to its blue-collar ethos. According to U.S. Census data, 2010 marked the first year Remington's population increased in more than 80 years. Most of its roughly 2,500 residents are between the ages of 18 and 34. The last decade has seen Remington — bounded by Charles Village, the Jones Falls, Druid Hill Park, Hampden and the Johns Hopkins University — become a "viable location for investors and young, new residents seeking an affordable alternative to more expensive neighborhoods," writes Ambrose.
"As far as central Baltimore is concerned, this is the only place where I felt I could afford a house and want to live in the neighborhood," says Charmington's cofounder Amanda Rothschild. The 29-year-old moved from Hampden last April to be closer to work, family, and friends. "Remington always struck me as being a very nonpretentious neighborhood, one that is still residential. The businesses that exist in this area are all really good, interesting, unusual places," she says.
That same feeling has attracted others. About six years ago, musician Kate Felder and her husband, Mike Podczaski, purchased a 740-square-foot house on Tuxedo Street for about $110,000. "I couldn't afford Hampden anymore," says Felder, 34. On her block of 12 houses are mostly people between 25 and their early thirties, she says. Many help maintain a neighborhood community garden on Fox Street. Felder and her 30-odd neighbors also routinely hold Sunday cookouts, one reason she's eagerly awaiting the opening of the butcher shop inside Parts and Labor.
In talking to Gjerde, one gets the feeling he wouldn't have picked anywhere else to locate his newest venture. "We're not so starry-eyed about the thing that we don't understand there's a challenge to get people to come down to Remington," he says. "But it has been a great neighborhood for as long as I can remember."
Crime, particularly violent crime, is on the decline in Remington. Although one of Baltimore's 235 homicides in 2013 happened on Fox Street, and crime data from 2013 show that a number of robberies in the neighborhood happened at gunpoint (including an incident at W.C. Harlan in November which garnered much media attention), new residents will tell you they feel safe.
"There's more activity on the streets. There's more nightlife … more people walking their dogs," says Sean Flanigan, 37, the chair of the English department at college preparatory school Loyola Blakefield. A frequent patron of the New Wyman Park Restaurant on West 25th Street, Flanigan was the first to move into one of the new townhouses Seawall renovated.
Vacant buildings are still around; they're noticeable on Remington's corners, the locations of smaller groceries and shops forced to close over the years, and places that remain empty today because they've since become zoned, per Baltimore city's 1970s-era zoning code, for residential instead of commercial use. (A Twitter feed OURremington, who wouldn't speak on the record, has been calling for such corner lots to be re-zoned for commercial use.)
But the overall number of vacants has decreased. Data from the last U.S. Census shows the number of "vacant units" has decreased since 2000 from 202 to 178; Baltimore city data counts 36 vacant houses. For its townhouse-rehabbing project, Seawall purchased nine such houses through the city's Vacants to Value program. A revival, a renaissance, a rejuvenation — whatever one's preferred term, evidence indicates it's happening. Although to some, it's coming at a cost.