Normalcy remained elusive for the residents of the Charles Village block that collapsed in April even as they came back home this week.
Construction still hums outside as workers rebuild East 26th Street and the wall that held it above adjacent railroad tracks.
The block of neighbors on East 26th Street in between North Charles and St. Paul streets, so close-knit that they coordinated the pastel colors of their rowhouses, were allowed to return after more than a month of work to shore up the street and reconnect utilities.
On Saturday, the day most of them were expected to arrive, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake walked through the block to check on the progress of construction and to speak to a few residents.
Lee Truelove shook Rawlings-Blake's hand on the sidewalk, next to a chain-link fence that separates her home from heavy machinery.
"We've got to stop meeting like this," Truelove joked to the mayor.
A 30-foot retaining wall built around the turn of the last century collapsed along with a portion of the street amid heavy rains April 30, sending cars, streetlights and debris tumbling onto CSX train tracks below.
City officials have not said whether CSX will help pay for stabilizing and restoring the street, estimated to cost $18.5 million, though city and railroad officials have met weekly since the collapse. The cause of the collapse has not been determined.
"Everyone knows that the larger construction to finish the street, repair the wall, put up the fence, the sidewalks, all of those things, that's going to take some months," Rawlings-Blake said. "But at least the residents are in their homes, safe, and we can continue that construction work on a regular … schedule and not on an emergency basis."
Fences ring the block, with signs indicating that only residents are to enter. On Saturday, construction workers in hard hats were busy erecting a new wall, and a bulldozer moved earth around the space between the new wall and the railroad tracks.
Floodlights, portable toilets and various pieces of heavy construction equipment remain.
Workers have installed new water and sewer lines for the homes, and gas hookups were finished Wednesday, completing the emergency phase of the work. Dozens of holes, to be filled with support material, have been drilled deep under the street to prevent further collapse.
Construction for long-term restoration could keep the block closed for months.
Concerns about the wall date back at least two decades. A Baltimore Sun report from the 1990s said the city and CSX were sparring over who was responsible for repairs.
Jim Zitzer, who moved back to the block on Thursday, said he was glad to leave the Hunt Valley hotel where he stayed for weeks with his wife and three cats. But he said there is still "a lot of heartache" for the residents, some of whom have children or run businesses out of their houses.
"Who's responsible? ... I don't know. But it's not our fault," said Zitzer. "I just live here."
Some residents declined to comment, and Truelove said most of the residents have hired lawyers who advised them not to speak to the news media.
Rawlings-Blake had set a 40-day timeline for the residents' return, which ends on Monday. She said the city and CSX are still working out who's responsible for the cost of the restoration.
"We're doing our due diligence, they're doing theirs," Rawlings-Blake said. "We're still reviewing what caused the slide, and in that work we're also preparing for the negotiations with CSX.
"I'm very pleased with the speed with which we've worked. We made it clear to all the engineers and all the contractors on this job that there were no vacations, no holidays, this was going to be 24 hours a day, we were going to be working on it until we could get the residents back in their homes," she said.
Two of the homes were broken into after residents were evacuated, with $1,200 in cash and other personal items stolen from one house. A window frame was damaged when someone pushed in a window air-conditioning unit in Zitzer's house, though nothing was stolen.
Zitzer said the city employees he's interacted with have been friendly and helpful. "They've all gone out of their way to make it as easy as they could," he said.
Still, he said, it's been jarring to return with months of work remaining.
"You can actually feel the house jumping when the backhoes hit rocks," he said. "I'll just be looking forward to it all getting finished, and that's a long way off."
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