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Northeast Baltimore shines despite problems

The life I experience as a 30-year resident and homeowner in Northeast Baltimore is quite different from the picture painted recently in The Sun. I've worked in community development for 16 years and know the Northeast Baltimore neighborhoods well. I have seen them evolve from quasi-suburban outposts to sought-after places with distinct amenities and some of Baltimore's most interesting people.

Yes, the neighborhoods of Ednor Gardens, Belair-Edison, Lauraville, and Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello share the problems of most urban neighborhoods, but these communities are popular homeownership destinations for young families and fertile ground for prosperous new businesses. These facts speak volumes about their assets and their resilience.

In 2009, "This Old House" of magazine and TV fame named Lauraville the best neighborhood in Maryland to buy a house. Other Northeast Baltimore neighborhoods also have many desirable homes. Through the modest Healthy Neighborhoods program alone, 130 households in Belair-Edison, Lauraville, Ednor Gardens and Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello have invested $8.7 million in home purchases and home improvement loans. Investment is perhaps the surest indicator of neighborhood confidence.

In April, The Sun featured glowing reviews of Harford Road's Red Canoe Children's Bookstore and Café, Chef Mac's Restaurant and Blues Club, and Koco's Pub. In The Sun's recent compilation of the city's top 50 restaurants and bars, two of the top 20 restaurants, Chameleon Café and Clementine, are young Harford Road restaurants; Hamilton Tavern is among the top 50 bars in town. The omnipresent Zeke's Coffee operates its roastery and a coffee shop on the Lauraville corridor, and Clementine's owners are opening a specialty food store this month. Many of the mostly young entrepreneurs who operate these establishments own homes in the neighborhood, send their children to neighborhood schools, and buy produce grown in the neighborhood by the Hamilton Crop Circle.

Northeast Baltimore is also a fine place to educate children. Hamilton Elementary Middle School is a top academic performer with a functioning farm. It is in the process of building a filtered irrigation system that will divert rain water from 2,200 square feet of the school's roof to the garden. Charter schools have flourished along the Harford and Belair road corridors, including the Green School, Afya, City Neighbors Charter School, City Neighbors Hamilton, and City Neighbors High School. St. Francis of Assisi School in Mayfield is among the city's most sought-after parochial schools.

And then there are the parks. Northeast Baltimore residents are passionate about Herring Run Park, Clifton Park Golf Course and Lake Montebello. From dawn until dusk the lake is encircled with joggers, bikers, walkers and baby strollers. Residents meander along the paths of Herring Run Park and take time each spring to clean the stream and plant trees on its perimeter. Belair-Edison residents enjoy movies in the park throughout the summer. The playing fields in Herring Run and Clifton Parks are rarely idle. In partnership with neighborhood organizations and schools, Blue Water Baltimore has removed tons of concrete and asphalt and planted more than 1,000 trees to protect this important watershed.

The complaint that the Northeast Police District is too large and under-resourced is one that I first heard from police officers themselves in 1995. The district would benefit from more resources, stable leadership and consistent strategies for addressing crime. Another familiar refrain from the 1990s is that influxes of new residents from other neighborhoods are the cause of Northeast Baltimore's social ills. Northeast communities are move-up neighborhoods with larger homes, lots of greenery, and good school choices. How neighborhoods manage change and welcome new neighbors determines their future success.

Northeast neighborhoods, particularly Belair-Edison, have been bellwethers for mortgage scandals, starting with sloppy FHA lending in the late 1990s. The neighborhoods were also among the first to sound the alarm about the impending mortgage crisis while coming to the aid of its victims. It is a remarkable sign of strength that these neighborhoods continue to maintain very high rates of homeownership.

Do we have problems? For sure, and we work on them diligently — but we are not defined by them. It is the wealth of assets and energetic residents that attract newcomers and keep longtime residents in place.

Barbara Aylesworth is a senior program officer with Healthy Neighborhoods Inc. Her email is baylesworth@healthyneighborhoods.org.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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