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Baltimore City

Solving Baltimore’s vacant rowhouse puzzle

Regina Hammond stood in the threshold of an East Biddle Street rowhouse and broke into a broad smile.

Another one of the hundreds of persistently vacant houses in her quadrant of East Baltimore soon would be welcoming a new family. It’s being totally rebuilt from a shell of structurally compromised walls.

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Hammond, a paralegal who moved to her Johnston Square neighborhood (south of Green Mount Cemetery) years ago, watched her home community decline.

“There was no place for kids to play and they got into mischief by banging on my front door,” she said.

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She went to work and soon secured a grant to make over the old Ambrose Kennedy Park. Now it’s got a working swimming pool, a splash pool and restrooms. It’s also been renamed for Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose ‘HeLa’ cells were taken without her consent at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. Her cells have been a vital tool in many scientific breakthroughs.

Hammond recently addressed members of a bus tour to show what’s been accomplished on and off Greenmount Avenue and North Broadway. She’s built up a core of friends for her neighborhood — including members of the Green Spring Garden Club who have brought their skills to her community.

The gardeners created small gardens in the vacant lots where rowhouses once stood. They covered the planting plots with native Maryland plants. There’s even a sunflower garden.

It’s taken time, 15 years, to make a recognizable difference in these neighborhoods adjacent to the Johns Hopkins Medical Campus.

In that span, Hammond sought help from real estate financial strategist Sean Closkey. It’s been accomplished through a partnership with an organization called ReBUILD Metro — and there is now hope this strategy can be employed throughout the city.

The question is: Can the success of the adjacent blocks that stretch from Pennsylvania Station to the Johns Hopkins Medical Campus be duplicated throughout sections of West Baltimore?

Regina Hammond, executive director of Rebuild Johnston Square Neighborhood Organization, stops to see homes in the 1700 block of E. Biddle St. ReBUILD Metro is renovating in the Broadway East/Eager Park area.

The reason for hope is a success story. The Greenmount West neighborhood near the west side of Green Mount Cemetery has come back from a dismal economic plight. Homes there now sell for upwards of $300,000, although there is a guarantee that no existing resident will be forced out.

The neighborhood now has a home restaurant, Guilford Hall, a brewery at Guilford Avenue and Lanvale Street.

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It’s been estimated that Baltimore has 14,800 vacant houses. The presence of one or more empty homes within a row usually drags the whole block down.

“Rowhouse blocks are a single system,” Closkey said. “Compromise any one part and you compromise the entire system.”

Not only were the homes vacant, some of them had deeply rooted mature trees growing inside them.

The rebuilding of East Baltimore has been slow and deliberate. But if you stand at the corner of Gay Street and Broadway, the transformation of a neighborhood is apparent.

Without much acknowledgment or fanfare but with much hard labor, the Oliver and Broadway East neighborhoods are being reconstructed. It’s being accomplished house by house.

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More than a decade ago, the Oliver neighborhood had 426 abandoned houses. Today it’s fewer than ten, Closkey said.

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Closkey said his strategy is to uplift market forces so that, in the future, the neighborhoods can become financially viable in terms of housing values.

His group employs a box of financial tools, including federal historic tax credits. The result is that properties are being preserved, with reconstructed interiors.

“The way it’s financed, every house is its own project,” Closkey said of the paperwork-intense process his staff has used.

Along the way, his construction crews have extricated more than a few stubborn trees.

Closkey points out that these neighborhood now have economic diversity. Of the homes that have been renovated, two-thirds are rentals — at levels existing residents can afford — and the remaining third have been sold to homebuyers.

“We are trying to say, Baltimore, we can fix this,” Closkey said.


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