A little more than a decade ago, the Yellow Bowl Restaurant drew a broad cross-section of Baltimore to Johnston Square, the impoverished neighborhood boxed in between the Jones Falls Expressway, the Maryland Penitentiary and Green Mount Cemetery.
During evenings at the restaurant, the city's political elite, prison guards and neighbors home from work sat elbow to elbow, enjoying what many considered the best soul food in town.
"You could always take the pulse of the community by the community that was gathered there," said former Mayor Kurt Schmoke, a loyal customer of one of the city's first black-owned restaurants. "Just the thought of those biscuits brings a smile to my face."
All that's left now of the Yellow Bowl is the bright yellow awning hanging over boarded-up doors along Greenmount Avenue. The restaurant closed in 2006, adding one more vacant building to a city full of them.
While multimillion-dollar redevelopment efforts began transforming neighborhoods to the north and east years ago, Johnston Square has been waiting for its big break. The neighborhood's inauspicious location, wedged between the highway, the prison and cemetery, has made attracting developers particularly challenging.
But now developers are trying to parlay revitalization efforts around Penn Station to the north and near the Johns Hopkins medical campus to the east into new life for Johnston Square.
Nonprofit TRF Development Partners plans to overhaul at least 30 rentable and salable rowhouses, to be priced for families that earn less than the median area income. Charm City Meadworks is turning a warehouse into a brewery and tasting room. A neighborhood park that was so overgrown that some forgot it existed is getting a makeover. And the Yellow Bowl is poised for a comeback: 37-year-old chef Heather Smith plans to turn it into restaurant concept she calls global comfort food with a teaching kitchen to train neighbors in basic culinary skills.
If the wave of redevelopment marching down Greenmount Avenue is done right, supporters say, it could revive the community, better connect it to the rest of the city and improve life for the people who stuck with the neighborhood through the years.
"Baltimore is still dealing with a lot of the scars of discriminatory housing practices," said Cheryl Knott, a project manager with the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute. "You didn't have a lot of connection 50, 60 years ago between Mount Vernon and anything on the other side of the Jones Falls.
"This is really an opportunity to ensure that when this development comes in, when there's new investment, being able to protect and empower and lift up the people who are there instead of displacing them."
The neighborhood has a long way to go.
One out of every three buildings is vacant, according to TRF. The Greenmount East statistical area, which includes Johnston Square, has the second-highest homicide rate in the city, and the third-lowest life expectancy, 67.9 years, according to the city health department. The median household income, $23,277, is little more than half the city median, and almost a quarter of residents are unemployed — nearly twice the city rate.
The nearest grocery store is a bus ride away, and the lack of other services, such as pharmacies, convenience stores and recreation for youth, has made it hard to entice new residents.
But the city is throwing its weight behind the neighborhood, acquiring vacant properties and parceling them together with hope of handing them off to developers. Officials say the city has spent $10 million acquiring and demolishing properties and supporting affordable housing projects in Johnston Square over the past decade, and expects to spend millions more in the years ahead.
"This is a great neighborhood to invest in because of the strength that has been realized in Greenmount West and Oliver," said Wendi Redfern, acting deputy commissioner for land resources at the city's Department of Housing & Community Development. "It's a natural next phase to leverage the investment that's already been put in and knit it all together."
The neighborhood has some strengths, city Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman said. It's anchored by the St. Frances Academy, and has the attention of a community focused developer, TRF, and a neighborhood association committed to shepherding in change.
"There's every reason to believe that the trajectory of Johnston Square will continue on in the present trend," Braverman said. "A lot of that has to do with the partnership between the city and the community."
Regina Hammond has lived in the neighborhood for more than three decades. Four years ago, she rounded up her neighbors and formed Rebuild Johnston Square, a group working to revitalize the neighborhood. She says she wanted to be able to sit in her living room in peace, without worrying about bored youths outside tearing everything apart.
"I saw a lot of deterioration," said Hammond, the group's president. "We had a whole lot of kids with a whole lot of nothing to do except destroy things."
The group started small, organizing trash cleanup days and community meetings to encourage neighbors to get involved, speak up about what they want and play a role in making it happen.
With help from the city, the state and community support organizations, Rebuild Johnston Square last year applied for and received a $437,500 grant from the National Recreation and Park Association and the American Planning Association to renovate Ambrose Kennedy Park.
The renovations, led by Baltimore's Parks & People Foundation, include repairing the pool's splash pad, resurfacing basketball courts and installing restrooms.
The city is in the process of acquiring buildings along East Chase and Valley streets, Braverman said. The plan is to knock them down and expand the park. The city estimates that acquiring the properties will cost $1 million, to be paid for through the state's Project CORE, an initiative aimed at reducing blight.
"It's going to look 100 percent better than before," Hammond said.
Hammond said she is pleased to see the group's years of hard work pay off and glad others are starting to realize the neighborhood's assets she's known about all along.
"We've been waiting to see that happen for years," Hammond said. "We're situated in the midst of so many good things."
Smith, who grew up in Baltimore, said she was drawn to the Yellow Bowl property by its address: 1234 Greenmount Ave. Her catering and pop-up restaurant business is named 12:34, because she believes ascending sequential numbers mean you're headed in the right direction.
She's planning to call her restaurant 12:34, or possibly 12:34 at the Yellow Bowl — she hasn't decided yet. Either way, she hopes her idea for a menu that emphasizes breakfast and lunch comfort foods — with a global twist — will pay tribute to the Johnston Square institution's history.
Yellow Bowl was founded in 1921 by Greeks-Americans, but is best remembered for the pork ribs, stewed chicken, biscuits and other soul food favorites served up by a later owner, Youman Fullard Sr.
Fullard, who bought the restaurant in 1968, was so successful in Johnston Square that he opened a second location in 1975 near the Pimlico Race Course. His likeness can be found in the Great Blacks in Wax Museum.
In addition to the restaurant, Smith plans to include a teaching kitchen to train residents in basic culinary skills they could use to get a job in a local restaurant kitchen.
Smith, who teaches classes through the local meal service Moveable Feast, said it is important that her business give back to the community.
"I've seen what it looks like when businesses open and they care about the community and they want the community to feel welcome and a part," Smith said. "I've also seen what it looks like when 'location, location, location' — that's the only driving force and they don't care about the people who've been here.
"That's not what I want."
Down the road from the Yellow Bowl, Charm City Meadworks has installed four fermenting tanks in its new industrial space on Preston Street, and aluminum cans of the sweet brew are stacked to the ceiling as workers hustle to finish building out a taproom in time to open next month.
Charm City Meadworks moved operations this year to the 6,500-square-foot industrial space. It's five times larger than its old space in Curtis Bay. The company considered spots all over the city before settling on Johnston Square, co-owner Andrew Geffken said, because the size and price were right.
"It's sad and eye-opening, the amount of vacancy here, but that's some of what enables us to have such a big space," Geffken said. "We wanted to be closer to the city, but we also wanted to be on the edge of things."
Johnston Square isn't exactly bustling with retail. Charm City Meadworks plans to make an outdoor seating area and lively entrance facing Biddle Street with the goal of luring visitors over the bridge from Mount Vernon and drawing more foot traffic to the neighborhood.
Kim Clark, executive vice president at the Baltimore Development Corp., said entrepreneurs such as Geffken and Smith play a critical role in neighborhood revitalization by serving as anchors that can attract more people to the area and set an example for other businesses and developers to follow.
"People need to see things they can touch," Clark said, "so once they start seeing actual buildings in place and buildings that look nice and have a good effect on the community, they start to see hope.
"For a long time, Greenmount Avenue heading south, you sort of dead-ended at the correctional facility."
Now Greenmount Avenue is flush with activity from Open Works, a makerspace created by the Baltimore Arts Realty Corp., and several recently redone residential buildings: City Arts, City Arts 2, and the Lillian Jones apartments.
As residential redevelopment moves into Johnston Square, Redfern said, the city must make sure that developers work with residents to ensure the results meet their needs.
"It has to be a really, really targeted effort, so communities don't feel like we're doing something to them — that our development efforts are with them," Redfern said.
TRF is gutting and renovating six rowhouses on Homewood Avenue at a cost of about $200,000 each, with plans to do another six. The work is backed by a federal tax credit program that requires the units be rented to low-income residents for no more than a third of their income. After five years, the homes can be sold.
TRF paid $100,000 last month to acquire two blocks of city-owned vacant rowhouses on Biddle Street. The 20 units will be built to sell to low-income residents.
TRF, Created by The Reinvestment Fund, a Philadelphia-based investment bank, and BUILD, the Baltimore community development group, has renovated hundreds of vacant rowhouses in Oliver and Greenmount West.
Along with BUILD, TRF recently launched a homeownership program that helps low-income renters prepare to buy.
TRF President Sean Closkey said homeownership can help stabilize a neighborhood, as residents take equity in the property and feel a stronger sense of responsibility to maintain the place they live.
In many neighborhoods undergoing redevelopment, he said, rentals outnumber units for sale because the cost of rebuilding a home is often greater than what it can sell for.
To build homes in Johnston Square to sell, TRF will need to raise enough money to make up the difference between the construction cost and the anticipated sale price.
Closkey said the nonprofit was drawn to the neighborhood by Hammond and her group's passion for reviving the area and highlighting its strengths.
He said features that might deter other developers — such as the prison next door — seem like challenges only when there is nothing else positive to point to.
"Are you going to celebrate and put your best foot forward, or walk around sheepishly and say, 'I've got a prison in my backyard'?" Closkey said. "It's a phenomenal location. It's the nexus coming across the city into East Baltimore, it's linked to the arts and entertainment, it has engaged citizenry.
"Those are all things that make neighborhoods work. It has all the pieces you need to get rid of what doesn't work."
The Rev. Ray Cotton, pastor of Mount Sinai Baptist Church on Preston Street, said the neighborhood has come a long way since he started preaching in the area 20 years ago. Now he wants to see new development include amenities and services such as a grocery store.
"I believe Johnston Square is a model, and going to be a very positive model for change throughout the city," Cotton said. "The negative is citizens are still tremendously challenged."
Cotton's historic church is rebuilding after a fire destroyed its library last year.
Knott's Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance studies social, health and economic indicators in the city. For a neighborhood redevelopment to be successful, she said, those involved must consider transportation and access to jobs.
Nearly 30 percent of residents in the Greenmount East statistical area spend more than 45 minutes commuting to work.
More than half of households do not have a car, and the area is at least a half-mile walk from Penn Station. Knott said most in the neighborhood likely embark on lengthy bus rides to work.
"If you're having residents who are spending that long to get to work, it's hard to continue living in the neighborhood or to continue having a job, which is probably far away," she said.
The city is trying to address that challenge.
Planned improvements for the Greenmount corridor include bump-outs to slow traffic and make it safer to cross the street.
Baltimore Link's new routes might also help residents get to work faster, Knott said.
Better transportation could also improve access to Mount Vernon, the University of Baltimore and other thriving neighborhoods that, though just blocks away, have been cut off by the Jones Falls Expressway.
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Schmoke, the president of the University of Baltimore, said he wants to see a stronger connection between his institution and its neighbors to the east. The university has been in talks with Open Works about opportunities for students, and Schmoke said he sees the Johnston Square neighborhood as an extension of that area.
Before long, he might have another compelling reason to cross the JFX: Smith hopes to open her restaurant within the next two years.
There's a lot of work to do first. Smith is gutting the long-vacant space. She wants to tear down concrete barriers behind the main building and clear out decades of brush and trash to make way for an event area, in which she can host small parties.
She said she's committed to seeing it through.
"I just really hope to be able to be part of the community," she said. "I feel good about Johnston Square."