A project pouring nearly $13 million into a three-quarter-mile stretch of North Avenue is scheduled to start Monday, an effort a decade in the making that local politicians trumpeted Saturday as a means to lure investment to the downtrodden corridor.
Between Aisquith and Washington streets over the next two years, crews will repave the beat-up roadway, install brick sidewalks and fresh curb cuts for handicapped access, and replace traffic signals and underground infrastructure. For now, the sidewalks are cracked and strewn with trash, and the blacktop is bumpy and pockmarked.
At a ceremony during which a church choir sang, a brass band played and politicians spoke, community leaders said they have worked for years to secure the investment, which includes $4 million in federal spending alongside city money. They are counting on the beautification to attract new residents and businesses and communicate respect for those already there, helping to put the surrounding neighborhoods on the same economic footing as more affluent parts of the city.
"This project ought to be normal," Rep. Elijah Cummings said, contrasting the neglect of the corridor with more manicured upkeep in other parts of the city. "We ought to expect for this 11 blocks to look like Federal Hill."
Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, and Erich March, president of the East North Avenue Community Development Corp., said they had discussed investing in an improved "streetscape" since the mid-2000s. While similar investments have been made along West North Avenue in recent years, they were unable to secure the money.
But when the federal government committed $4 million for the roadway — it carries a section of U.S. 1 — and the city's Transportation Department contributed another $1 million for roadwork, the city's Public Works Department joined in with an opportunity to fix up underground infrastructure, March said.
"We want to make this street and streetscape as good as the people who live here," Daniel Sparaco, assistant deputy mayor for operations, told the crowd of about 100 gathered in a parking lot on the corner of North Avenue and North Broadway.
City transportation crews were scheduled to start working Monday, though some preparations were already evident, with orange construction cones and netting spread across a nearby sidewalk, said Frank Murphy, a senior adviser for the city Transportation Department.
Audience members audibly affirmed March as he described the changes he has seen since moving to a house on North Avenue as a child in 1957. He called it "a pristine main corridor" in the city with mostly white residents and a gleaming Sears and Roebuck store at East North Avenue and Harford Road.
"It was a thing to be proud of in our community," he said.
But after riots and looting overtook much of the city in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968, the store closed, and the neighborhood began its downward trajectory, like so many others across the city, he said.
With so many visitors to the Eastside District Court, which took over the former Sears space, and to the nearby Great Blacks in Wax Museum and March's family business, March Funeral Home, "the city ought to invest more in this community," he said.
Leaders of six nearby community associations said they agree. Diane Williams, president of the Oliver Community Association, said the streetscape project coincides with other efforts to promote respect for the neighborhoods, discouraging litter and neglect. She is considering instituting a dues system, for example.
Cummings said the project could have broader impacts.
"I want our children to grow up with high expectations," he said. "When we beautify our neighborhoods and maintain them, it's about respect."