Union Square neighbors

Union Square boosters from left: Andrea Leahy, 46, Thomas Pointer, 41, and Chris Taylor, 35, holding a street banner designed by Leahy. (Jed Kirschbaum / The Baltimore Sun / August 4, 2011)

Chris Taylor peered down the street at the house. It was a vacant. And it was a problem.

He'd been getting calls for weeks about this property, about the teenagers hanging out there, the drug dealing and prostitution. He dialed a number, placed his cell phone against his ear, and began walking around the side of the building toward the alley.

As Taylor's phone connected to the person on the other end, he saw a door open. A young man walked out and pulled his hoodie over his head, casting a shadow on his face.

Standing 6-foot-1, Taylor was significantly bigger than the teen. But he was alone. And he was unarmed. And this was an alley in West Baltimore.

The teen kept his hand in his pocket as he approached.

Taylor hesitated.

"I think you're f---ing lost," the teen told Taylor.

In 2006, Taylor, then a 30-year-old Pennsylvania transplant, moved to Union Square. On his block, more houses were vacant than occupied. But he and his wife, Megan, loved the old house they bought in an area once inhabited by Baltimore intelligentsia, such as H.L. Mencken. And they weren't about to leave.

The couple didn't know it at the time, but Union Square was about to join a handful of neighborhoods bucking the trend of decline in Baltimore. After decades of residents fleeing for the suburbs, fewer and fewer of Baltimore's neighborhoods resembled the kind of place to which anyone would want to move. But for Taylor, Union Square was just the opposite: a place with cheap housing, proximity to downtown and a ton of promise.

So what if nearly half the houses were vacant? Union Square was about to start forging a comeback.

Taylor fixed his eyes on the youth and took the phone from his ear. On the other end was Southern District Commander Maj. Scott Bloodsworth.

"I've got the police commander on the phone," Taylor says he told the teen.

The young man's eyes widened.

"This is my neighborhood," Taylor said. "You're the one who's lost."

Minutes later, the cops arrived and placed the teen in cuffs. As for the vacant house?

"That's the good news," Taylor said. "It's currently under construction."

The vacancy problem

If Baltimore has a fundamental problem, it's represented by the vacant house: 47,000 of them — to be exact — about 16 percent of the city's housing stock. They're the result of Baltimore's population decline from 950,000 people in 1950 to 620,000 today.

The vacant house is an invitation for crime and litter to increase and a sense of community to decrease, activists say.