From the desolate and dilapidated block of Denmore Avenue, a chant rang through the Park Heights neighborhood Wednesday as Baltimore political, community and business leaders gathered with residents to launch a project that many called a "new beginning" for the long troubled community.
"Break the wall down," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake led the group in bellowing as the first of 41 vacant properties on the street was excavated — no longer habitable for squatters, drug dealers and rodents who for years have taken up residence there.
The demolition of the properties, part of the city's "Vacants to Value" initiative and a long-term plan to revive the Park Heights community, will make way for the construction of new athletic fields and ultimately a 7-acre park that will include 100,000 square feet of recreational space, walking paths and playgrounds serving as an anchor of the community.
Residents said the clanking and crashing, the gutting and destruction were the most pleasant sounds and sights they'd experienced in the neighborhood in years.
"It makes your heart sing," said Lillian Sydnor, a community leader who has lived in Park Heights for 45 years. "This is one of the greatest things that ever happened here. When I came here, Park Heights was beautiful — and I've seen it go from beauty to blight."
"I ask God to let me live long enough to see it [beautiful] again," the 73-year-old said.
The Park Heights Master Plan calls for demolition in a 62-acre "major redevelopment area," acquiring properties and relocating residents. So far, 13 residents have been relocated.
The plan includes construction of senior housing, a kids' piazza that an early-childhood center will use and greenhouses for use by Pimlico Elementary School students. A series of housing programs will also be rolled out for residents, geared toward avoiding foreclosures and promoting rehabilitation.
The mayor said that the project represents not only "another milestone in the progress for Park Heights" but also fits into her vision of attracting 10,000 families to Baltimore in the next decade, by making the long-blighted community "one of the greenest and healthiest parts of the city."
The development of the space will begin with baseball fields, launching with a pledge from the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation to devote $1.1 million to establish one of its national youth development projects.
The overall project will cost $3.3 million, which will be jointly funded by the foundation and the city. Several other organizations signed on to the project, including the Ravens Foundation and the National Football League, which will jointly sponsor a football field.
Officials who have overseen the Park Heights Master Plan identified the demolition site as one of the "critical areas that needs revitalization" because community members asked for a baseball field and other amenities to serve future generations.
"This represents a clear indication of the revitalization, but also it's bringing back a sport that's been a dying sport in Baltimore City," said Julius "Julio" Colon, president and CEO of the Park Heights Renaissance, the group responsible for overseeing the master plan.
The park, Colon said, was just one part of the master plan, which he called "enormous" and said would take at least a decade and $1 billion to complete.
City officials and residents hailed the groundbreaking as a "new beginning" for the community, whose master plan, created in 2006, has made steady progress due to grants pursued by the city's housing department, slots revenue, private fundraising and federal dollars.
"This block has been an eyesore," Michael Braverman, deputy city housing commissioner, told residents. "What we're doing here is just a start. You will see demolition crews for the next year."
When the dust settled, residents Clifford Dummett and John Carter walked across a trash-littered field to their homes, pointing to back alleys that have served as dumping grounds.
Bennett, a resident of 35 years who was invited to take the first swipe at the vacant buildings — one of the many things he had long complained about — said he was glad to see activity start but had concerns about the city following through.
He said his daily phone calls to city inspectors about problems in the neighborhood have constantly been ignored.
"All you get is a confirmation number — what the hell does a confirmation number do?" Bennett said. "Who comes to help with a confirmation number?"
Carter, who has lived in the city for eight years, echoed those sentiments, describing how his daughter walks to school across a polluted field and can't play in the front yard because of rats.
The men hope that the city is as committed to building pride in the community as it is to tearing down buildings.
"This effort shows me that they want to solve some problems, but I don't want them to stop here," Carter said. "I don't want them to do this just to shut us up."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun