Oliver neighborhood praised for preservation of its housing stock

Laborers work on homes located on the 1600 Preston Street block in Baltimore. The homes were abandoned in the last decade, but are being rebuilt as part of a community revival effort

The determined effort to transform East Baltimore's Oliver neighborhood continues to bear fruit.

Every month or so, another dozen houses along streets such as Preston or Caroline, not far from Johns Hopkins Hospital and the American Brewery, emerge transformed.


One can see cleaned facades, painted cornices, rooftop decks and sets of fresh curtains at the new windows.

This week, members of the community assembled at Memorial Baptist Church at Caroline and Preston streets for a celebration. In a video conference, Dr. Ben Carson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and a former Hopkins surgeon, announced to the group that Oliver had been awarded the 2017 Historic Preservation Award from HUD and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.


"There were 25 nominations," said Jordan Tannenbaum, a member of the advisory council in his remarks at the event. "Oliver has proven that you don't need to bulldoze a neighborhood."

Oliver's ongoing revival is a classic Baltimore tale, one of tragedy and a resolve to persevere. Neighborhood clergy came together after the 2002 firebombing of the Dawson family — seven members died when drug dealers set fire to their Oliver home. The clergy, also members of BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development) wanted to do prove that something positive could take place in this part of East Baltimore.

Initially the group sought to boost homeownership. That remains a goal, but the recession of 2008 forcibly changed their housing aspirations. They found that reconstructing the rundown and abandoned houses for affordable and market-rate rentals made more sense.

BUILD forged a collaboration with TRF Development Partners, a nonprofit created from the federally certified Reinvestment Fund to help chart Oliver's future.

About one-third of the homes that have been renovated were purchased by homeowners, some of whom work at the nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital complex. The other two-thirds are affordable and market-rate rentals.

Historic preservation of the existing housing stock has been the goal of the effort. Where there were vacant lots, the idea was to create new homes that dovetailed with the 1880s originals.

Some 320 homes have been thoroughly renovated or rebuilt. The effort continues along the Preston and Gay streets corridor — and watch for an initiative in nearby Johnston Square, to the west, near Greenmount Avenue.

So far, $85 million has been invested in the neighborhood.


"We weren't aware in 2008 that the housing and mortgage market was going to change so much," said the Rev. Calvin Keene, pastor of Memorial Baptist Church, one of the Oliver's community's congregations. "But we decided to keep on, to stay building.

"I never thought we'd be in the rental business today," he said, "but those rents have enabled us to keep going, to keep fixing our homes."

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Keene has deep roots in the community. He grew up in the 1400 block of E. Preston St., near the corner of Eden Street.

"We were shocked at the award," said Sean Closkey, president of TRF Development Partners, after Thursday's announcement. "We had no idea it was coming here. It was such honor.

"This kind of consistent, block-by-block revitalization is a challenge," Closkey said. "We are the underdog, and were competing against high-profile cultural projects that included libraries, art museums and theaters."

In his statement accompanying the award, Carson said: "This is a great example of the power that comes from a public-private collaboration, not just to rehab a few homes, but an entire neighborhood."


The recognition cites "success in advancing the goals of historic preservation, while providing affordable housing and expanded economic opportunities for low- and moderate-income families and residents."

"I was determined to see things change in this neighborhood," Keene said. "The construction throughout Oliver is awesome. The homes we are getting are really exquisite."