Remington residents deal with the consequences of change
By By Andrew Zaleski
Feb 25, 2014 | 1:21 PM
The pastor is not pleased. It's a Wednesday morning in mid-February, the first promise of temperatures topping 50 degrees in weeks, but it's cold and wet. An erratic trickle of people stops into the basement of the Church of the Guardian Angel at the corner of Huntingdon Avenue and West 27th Street, each one there for the same reason as the last: food.
They collect white plastic bags of provisions — boxes of cereal, cans of vegetables — and head outside again, back into Baltimore's Remington neighborhood. Most are elderly; some linger. For some, this stop at the food pantry isn't just about the ingredients for another few meals.
And that's where Pastor Alice Bassett-Jellema comes in.
One woman, who can't be younger than 60, arrives carrying a property tax assessment. Four years ago, when her property taxes were just north of $800, her house on the 2800 block of Huntingdon caught fire and burned right up to the roof. Neighbors chipped in with sweat equity to repair it. But now, as she shows Bassett-Jellema, pastor at Guardian Angel since 1997, her property taxes top $2,000.
Eyes locked, face resolute, a monthly planner before her with black ink scribbled onto nearly every date box, a large cup of coffee from Charmington's in her left hand, Bassett-Jellema brainstorms with Betsy Childs, a board member of the Greater Remington Improvement Association, as to what the correct course of action should be. Appeal the assessment, the pastor says, before turning to a reporter and laying out the question in plain terms: "There's always unintended consequences."
So here it is: To what effect does a renaissance, real or imagined, have on a neighborhood with a complex history?
By several measures, Remington's renaissance seems real. A decade of steady movement into the neighborhood, by businesses and residents, has changed the landscape and attracted visitors who can easily name popular spots: cocktail bar W.C. Harlan on West 23rd Street, bakery and cafe Sweet 27 on West 27th Street, and, on North Howard Street at the border of Charles Village, the coffee shop Charmington's.
Opening sometime in March, across the street, is Parts and Labor, a restaurant and butcher shop from Woodberry Kitchen proprietor Spike Gjerde. In January, Single Carrot Theatre occupied its new home in about 6,000 square feet of space next door.
Lest anyone forget Seawall Development, the corporation has left its mark throughout the neighborhood — Miller's Court on North Howard, with apartments for teachers and office space for nonprofits; 26 renovated townhouses completed in the last year; the building where Single Carrot resides; and, beginning this year, construction along three blocks on the west side of Remington Avenue, where a five-story building with more than 100 apartments is scheduled to open in summer 2016. Hanging over all this: the specter of a Walmart, the anchor of a redevelopment along 25th Street.
"There is no question there is significant change going on," says Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who has represented Remington on and off since the mid-1970s. "The challenge is to make sure those changes benefit the people who have been living there all this time."
For Remington, the balance between ambitious, much-needed development and its repercussions, on both the character of the neighborhood and the lives of its residents — those who grew up here, and those who are recent transplants — is the matter at hand. But to fully appreciate that balance, a dive into the history is required.
In earlier times, neighborhood residents were laborers. For more than 100 years, as author Kathleen Ambrose recounts in "Remington: The History of a Baltimore Neighborhood," published last year, residents had worked in the quarries, the mills and the factories, and relied on those jobs for their livelihoods. Following World War II, change came fast. Desegregation loomed. Jobs began disappearing. In the 1960s and 1970s, economic downturn "increased neighborhood crime, substance abuse, alcoholism, and a dependence on social welfare programs," Ambrose writes. In 1980 a study found that 80 percent of residents hadn't finished high school. In the 1980s and 1990s, robberies and homicides increased, products of neighborhood drug activity. Unemployment was high. People were moving out.
Since 2000, as Ambrose pinpoints, a turnaround in fortune has characterized a place that holds dearly to its blue-collar ethos. According to U.S. Census data, 2010 marked the first year Remington's population increased in more than 80 years. Most of its roughly 2,500 residents are between the ages of 18 and 34. The last decade has seen Remington — bounded by Charles Village, the Jones Falls, Druid Hill Park, Hampden and the Johns Hopkins University — become a "viable location for investors and young, new residents seeking an affordable alternative to more expensive neighborhoods," writes Ambrose.
"As far as central Baltimore is concerned, this is the only place where I felt I could afford a house and want to live in the neighborhood," says Charmington's cofounder Amanda Rothschild. The 29-year-old moved from Hampden last April to be closer to work, family, and friends. "Remington always struck me as being a very nonpretentious neighborhood, one that is still residential. The businesses that exist in this area are all really good, interesting, unusual places," she says.
That same feeling has attracted others. About six years ago, musician Kate Felder and her husband, Mike Podczaski, purchased a 740-square-foot house on Tuxedo Street for about $110,000. "I couldn't afford Hampden anymore," says Felder, 34. On her block of 12 houses are mostly people between 25 and their early thirties, she says. Many help maintain a neighborhood community garden on Fox Street. Felder and her 30-odd neighbors also routinely hold Sunday cookouts, one reason she's eagerly awaiting the opening of the butcher shop inside Parts and Labor.
In talking to Gjerde, one gets the feeling he wouldn't have picked anywhere else to locate his newest venture. "We're not so starry-eyed about the thing that we don't understand there's a challenge to get people to come down to Remington," he says. "But it has been a great neighborhood for as long as I can remember."
Crime, particularly violent crime, is on the decline in Remington. Although one of Baltimore's 235 homicides in 2013 happened on Fox Street, and crime data from 2013 show that a number of robberies in the neighborhood happened at gunpoint (including an incident at W.C. Harlan in November which garnered much media attention), new residents will tell you they feel safe.
"There's more activity on the streets. There's more nightlife … more people walking their dogs," says Sean Flanigan, 37, the chair of the English department at college preparatory school Loyola Blakefield. A frequent patron of the New Wyman Park Restaurant on West 25th Street, Flanigan was the first to move into one of the new townhouses Seawall renovated.
Vacant buildings are still around; they're noticeable on Remington's corners, the locations of smaller groceries and shops forced to close over the years, and places that remain empty today because they've since become zoned, per Baltimore city's 1970s-era zoning code, for residential instead of commercial use. (A Twitter feed OURremington, who wouldn't speak on the record, has been calling for such corner lots to be re-zoned for commercial use.)
But the overall number of vacants has decreased. Data from the last U.S. Census shows the number of "vacant units" has decreased since 2000 from 202 to 178; Baltimore city data counts 36 vacant houses. For its townhouse-rehabbing project, Seawall purchased nine such houses through the city's Vacants to Value program. A revival, a renaissance, a rejuvenation — whatever one's preferred term, evidence indicates it's happening. Although to some, it's coming at a cost.
"Renaissance, to us, is like the cavalry coming in a bad way," says Tom Culotta, 59, speaking about the longtime, working-class residents of Remington. Culotta first moved to the neighborhood in 1977, and for more than 30 years, the bulk of his time has been spent as a teacher with what is now called the Community School, a one-classroom school he co-founded on West 30th Street that became a state-certified high school in July 2013. Eight students between 14 and 17, who have all struggled in the city's public school system, take the typical gamut of courses in math, science, English and more.
But Culotta doesn't even live in Remington anymore. He moved to Woodberry last year because of increasing housing prices in the neighborhood. Live Baltimore data shows that the median home price in Remington has increased from $80,000 in 2012 to $139,900 in 2013.
Culotta remembers Hampden when its 36th Street played the role of the Avenue for Woodberry, Medfield and Remington, too. He recalls the health clinic and the G. C. Murphy department store, before a wine bar and a restaurant with valet parking moved in. Gentrification, he says, "pushed those places out." He worries about the older generation in Remington, the one on a fixed income that welcomes a Walmart because it promises a cheap place to buy socks and underwear, as well as a glimmer of hope for new jobs. Last November, the Baltimore City Planning Commission voted to approve a pared-down plan for the Walmart-anchored shopping center in Remington.
So while Miller's Court, Parts and Labor and the like excite Culotta, he acknowledges with candid resignation — "There's no enemy in all of this. It just is." — that such places are for the professional set, not the working class.
"It glitters and everything, but it's just not gold for us," he says.
In this context, wariness over a five-story apartment building — where rents for one-bedroom units will begin at $1,100, says Seawall Development Corp.'s Evan Morville — sounds like the appropriate reaction.
Morville, a Seawall partner, says the company was started in 2007 "to make a social difference using real estate." That has largely meant working with groups like Teach for America to design living spaces for new city teachers that would not only make their first years in Baltimore a smooth transition, but also entice them to stick around. Miller's Court, which opened in 2009 and is where Seawall's property management office is based, followed this model.
"What we've always done is we've listened to what the community's asked," Morville says. "We have embraced the neighborhood of Remington as our neighbor. We don't view ourselves as a guest."
Opinions about Seawall's proposed development along the 2700, 2800, and 2900 blocks of Remington Avenue appear mixed. Rothschild, who is concerned about a big-box store like Walmart coming in, says that while Seawall can't please everybody, the company is "very much aware of what the community needs." Others, like Bassett-Jellema, worry about rising property values and taxes due to new development.
"If that building comes in here," she says, referring to Seawall's multi-story apartment building, "it will force people out of their homes."
"I want things to be better in my neighborhood, but I don't want to push people out. … Great things mean combining both without destroying what's already here," says Dale Mcclinton, 43, a respiratory therapist who is also in school at the University of Baltimore for a degree in health systems administration. Mcclinton, who bought her house in 2009 for under $70,000, is a resident of Remington Avenue where Seawall plans to develop.
"It seems like some people see a piece of land that they want to do something on, and then they don't see the people around them," adds Joan Floyd, president of the Remington Neighborhood Alliance civic association. There's an "unspoken protocol," she says, that new people ought to tread lightly in Remington, and listen to residents, especially long-time ones, before making bold changes.
Floyd moved into the neighborhood in 1995, and many of Remington's new businesses, Single Carrot and Seawall among them, have listened to members of the RNA at the group's meetings. Gjerde was at February's RNA meeting allaying residents' concerns about the price point for cuts of meat at his butchery. Seawall has completed a sheet of 44 questions from the RNA about its Remington Avenue project.
As for any renaissance, Floyd says Remington's "transformation will come when we get our neighborhood public school."
Uncertainties about the hard-to-define balance between development and preservation still abound. But in speaking with 20 people who live or work in Remington (and several who do both), there seems to be no question about the bond among residents. New people? "They grew on you," says Culotta. The ones who have lived in Remington for some time? "We're all friendly with each other," says Felder.
"I think this neighborhood has been very happy to see new people come in," says Floyd.
Yes, people of varying stripes will keep moving in. Butch and Eloise Thompson, a couple in their 70s, will have spent 14 years this June inside a house on Miles Avenue. They were first renters, but ended up "counting pennies," Eloise says, to be able to buy their house in 2010 from their landlord.
She likens Miles Avenue to "one big happy family," and remembers the warmer months, when her placing potted plants around her front stoop led to the whole block doing the same in flora-inspired solidarity. They both feel the change coming — it's "for the best," Butch says — but from the coziness of their modest living room on a February evening, the future, even a potentially precarious one, seems bright.
"We wouldn't want to be anywhere else," says Eloise. And Butch, smiling, simply nods.