Growing pains in Pigtown: Ousted community president leads new group, just down the block

As Pigtown grows, residents fight over how to lead the South Baltimore neighborhood into the future.

The Pigtown Community Association scheduled its first formal meeting for the same time on the same night on the same street as a routine meeting of the Citizens of Pigtown.

Some confusion ensued.

"So, which way is the actual meeting?" former mayoral candidate Joshua Harris wondered aloud.

Neighbor Erin Harty vented on the community chat site.

"This is the most infantile political stunt I've ever seen," she wrote. "I'm sorry, but are we 12?"

The emergence of a splinter community association to challenge an established group is not unique to the South Baltimore neighborhood. More than 800 civic associations claim to represent the city's 225 neighborhoods, and Pigtown's tussle might be just another dust-up in backyard politics. But it also reveals rising energy in a historic neighborhood that's seen home values jump, families move in and businesses open.

Now, as the revival gains speed, two groups want to set the course. Call it the cost of progress in Pigtown.

"There aren't too many resources right now to help them navigate these kinds of growing pains," said Seema Iyer, a research professor at the University of Baltimore who studies city neighborhoods. "This is an issue: How do neighborhoods deal with conflict resolution?"

In Pigtown, growth has been a long time coming. The neighborhood limped out of the housing market crash with vacant rowhouses and shuttered businesses. City officials took some buildings by eminent domain in an effort to kindle a revival, but development came slowly.

Gradually, Pigtown rose and dusted itself off. Seven new businesses signed leases during a seven-month spree to close 2015. Four opened last year; five more signed to open this year, said Ben Hyman, executive director of Pigtown Main Street, a nonprofit that recruits new businesses.

"We've really seen this incredible resurgence," Hyman said.

By 2014, the rate of vacant housing in Pigtown had fallen below the city average of 8.1 percent. The median sale price of homes had nearly doubled to $113,000.

Pigtown has emerged as one of only five Baltimore neighborhoods where one race doesn't make up half the population, Iyer said. Everyone there is a member of a minority group.

Families have moved in from Washington, Brooklyn, N.Y., and San Francisco. Current Mayor Catherine Pugh chose Pigtown three years ago to open her consignment boutique. Former Mayor Sheila Dixon picked Pigtown as the site of the ice cream social that kicked off her 2016 campaign.

The neighborhoods near Horseshoe Casino Baltimore have enjoyed a share of gambling profits. The money has funded parks, children's programs, a job center and library; some $30,000 paid for an outdoor sculpture coming to Pigtown.

The neighborhood of nearly 3,000 homes is bounded by the old B&O Railroad and the Ravens and Orioles stadiums.

An old campaign to rebrand it as "Washington Village" didn't quite catch on, and Pigtown has settled into an identity distinctly Baltimorean in its quirkiness.

Families cheer on pig races, a nod to the bygone days when pigs were herded from the B&O and Union rail yard to slaughterhouses of South Baltimore. The animal is embraced with bumper stickers and rowhouse murals. Longtime resident Bill Marker wears them on his necktie.

Pigtown is, well, hip.

A sign of the change sits on Washington Boulevard. A developer wants to convert the former Walters Public Bath House No. 2 — the last public bath house in the city when it closed in 1959 — into the chic Milk & Honey Cafe.

"It's really a matter of old versus new," said Sylva Lin, a former private chef for the Washington Wizards. She opened a gourmet market, Culinary Architecture, on Pigtown's main drag last year. "Sometimes that divide can be complicated."

The complications came to a head late last year. According to meeting minutes, the board for Citizens of Pigtown held a special meeting and voted out three-year president Richard Parker. He wasn't there for the vote.

Board members questioned whether he still lives in the neighborhood. They said he ran up a bill renting equipment from the neighborhood tool bank and quietly sided with developers of the new Hammerjacks rock club against the board. The club is scheduled to open this year.

Former vice president Aparna Jain has taken over.

"He was setting himself up against the board," Jain said. "My intention was never to become president. I have a 16-month-old at home. This is not what I want to be doing with my time."

Parker insists he lives in the neighborhood, paid the tool bill and didn't subvert the board. Citizens of Pigtown was founded in the early 1970s, but he said meetings drew just a handful of people when he arrived on the board about three years ago. Today, nearly 60 members pay dues.

Parker, an African-American, said he suspects the vote was racially motivated. Jain, who is South Asian, rejected the suggestion, noting diversity of the board and members.

"Things got so personal," Parker said. "Now when this community is starting to gain certain prominence and attention you have certain people on the board who want to take it over."

Virginia Holley said she recruited Parker to formalize a small, casual group of neighbors as the Pigtown Community Association. Civic associations don't need to register with the city. By design, there are no barriers to deter neighbors from organizing.

The new association will focus on the neighborhood's overlooked edges, Parker said. Someone suggested they meet the same time as their counterparts.

"My desire is not to put Citizens of Pigtown out of business," Parker said. "People know this time and date."

Jain said he's forcing neighbors to take sides.

"Why did he decide to have his meeting on the exact same day?" she said. "It's a completely bizarre scene."

The dual meetings opened a block apart last month. Citizens of Pigtown met in the neighborhood bank, with more than 50 people in attendance. Pigtown Community Association met in the library — the reference section — with fewer than 10 present. Police Maj. Brian Hance discussed crime at one meeting, walked down the block, and presented again.

Del. Antonio Hayes hustled between both.

"I can't choose," he said. "I got to represent everybody."

Neighbor Vann Durham went from one meeting to the other.

"It's a waste of time and energy," he concluded.

Sean Scully attended both, too.

"Life can be just like high school," he observed.

Both associations plan to continue meeting on the second Tuesday of each month.

"That's a little extreme, but it's not unusual to have multiple groups attempting to be the voice of the neighborhood," said Iyer, at the University of Baltimore. "You have to find a way to work together."

But an event is planned that just might bring unity. Pigtown artist Rodney Carroll is building that 36-foot-tall sculpture to mark the neighborhood entrance at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The sculpture will be topped by a 9-foot bronze pig designed to wiggle in the wind.

Carroll envisions a new Baltimore landmark, a feather in the cap for a revitalized Pigtown, and a block party to celebrate.

Everyone will be invited.

tprudente@baltsun.com

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