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Forgotten one-block street cleared of homes in East Baltimore

Broadway TheaterSheila DixonTheater

Pity poor Lansing Avenue. One block and about 20 homes just off Broadway and North Avenue was all city planners gave it, and it couldn't even sustain that. Residents say it was a decent place to live until the drugs came, which also led to shootings and set fires.

The good residents got fed up, the bad ones didn't care, everyone moved out, and nature took over.

For years, pigeons have claimed one of the roofless brick rowhomes. Another is called the "Tree House" because a trunk has burst through the second-story window, prying a concrete block addition away from the main structure and sprouting leafy branches that provide a cool, if unwanted, canopy.

On Tuesday, demolition crews showed up to take down Lansing Avenue, and there wasn't much sentimentality to be found.

"People move out, and people don't move in, because it's an eyesore," said Ross Barnett, a 66-year-old handyman who said he's lived in the area his entire life. "Would you move here? Hell no."

The city's plan to raze this block is part of a broader effort to rebuild the Oliver neighborhood and others like it, whose decline has pushed Baltimore's severe population loss. Forty percent of the people who lived around Lansing Avenue left between 1980 and 2000, according to city planning officials.

It got so bad around here that three blocks north, the decrepit 1800 block of N. Bethel St. was chosen as the "set" for the infamous Hamsterdam scenes in "The Wire," where the fictional Baltimore police allowed drug dealers to ply their trade out of notice. Back in real life, the city moved to tear those blocks down.

As an excavator moved into view and city officials prepared for the mayor's arrival, Ralph Gatheright, 74, looked on. The retired contractor lives in the only house not yet boarded up between Lansing and his stretch of Bethel.

"I stay here because I like it," Gatheright said earnestly. "It's quiet, and it's nice."

He has a scraggly white beard and wears a camouflage hat that matches his jacket. Children's toys, flowers and American flags ornament the space outside of his house in the 1600 block of Bethel St —an attempt to make up for the lack of anything else resembling life in this particular spot.

Most hours of the day, you can find him outside his home on Bethel Street, sitting in a plastic chair facing Lansing Avenue and surrounded by friends and others who pass through. He's not sorry to see Lansing Avenue go, either, hoping it might spur rejuvenation that will extend to his side of the street.

"I'm optimistic," he said. "I mind my business, and most people know me, and they mind theirs. I prefer they have people living here, rather than tearing it down. But I feel good about it one way or the other."

But Charles Harlee, a 44-year-old who said he lived on Lansing for nine years until 1989 at a home whose decorative tile steps are one of the only flourishes still around, said it's beyond saving. "It gotta go," he said.

On Tuesday morning, the demolition crew got out ahead of the dignitaries. Barnett pushed a shopping cart full of supplies toward a renovation project on Broadway, his hands already caked with enough dirt for a day's worth of work. Gatheright was in his usual spot on the plastic chair, behind his green van with an enormous Bible on the dashboard.

Jamie Brown, 33, says Gatheright is known as "Pops" and has tried to help young people stay out of trouble, and has given food or money to people who need help. Is he worried that the 1600 block of Bethel could be knocked down next, pushing Gatheright out?

"They can't touch Pops. He owns his house. That's a part of him," Brown said.

As 11 o'clock neared, the mayor's advance team arrived and erected a podium. Up the block, a woman set up a boom box and began an interpretive dance to gospel music.

Rawlings-Blake arrived and greeted the people outside of Gatheright's home, posing for a picture as a down-on-his-luck man yelled, "Mayor Dixon, can I get a job?"

Sheila Dixon left the mayor's office almost four years ago.

"No one deserves to live on a block with blighted homes," Rawlings-Blake told the crowd, including Gatheright, gathered near the first home to be demolished.

"She's right," Gatheright said of her remarks later.

Deputy Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman told a reporter that demolishing Lansing Avenue serves a strategic purpose.

Blocks like this —tucked away, secluded, forgotten — are a haven for drug dealing, he said. Clearing out such alley streets for green space makes the main drags like Lanvale and Federal streets more attractive for rehab projects, he says.

Even though the city doesn't own the homes, officials gave the owners a chance to plead their case. No one made much of a go at it, he said.

Not just Lansing, but the 1600 block of N. Bethel St. will also be knocked down, he said. Contractors will leave up the house next to Gatheright's as a buffer, sawing away the roofs so it comes down without tearing. The city will work to relocate him and his family, then tear down his house, too.

This is not just a plan for the city, but imminent and in motion as part of the Lansing Avenue demolition, Braverman said.

That was news to Gatheright. He said he owns his home after working out a deal with the owner. But property records show that it is owned by a South Baltimore corporation. As the housing officials pulled off, Gatheright said no one has informed him of his impending move.

Sitting in his plastic lawn chair, Gatheright folded his hands and shrugged. Nothing surprises him at this point, and besides, he owns another home up the block — purchased for $8,000 a few years ago.

"If they need the house, so be it," he said. He wants to see good things happen here.

"I'll go in the other house," he said, then adds with a smile, "till they tear that one down too."

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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