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Rebuilt after fire, East Baltimore senior center represents hope for neighborhood rebirth

The $16 million Mary Harvin Transformation Center has been rebuilt ahead of schedule. It will include 61 affordable apartments for senior citizens and a community center with job training, counseling for those living with HIV/AIDS and other services.

Bernadette Louisa Taylor watched in horror the night her church's half-built senior center burned to the ground, taking with it her hopes of a rebirth for her struggling Broadway East neighborhood.

The $16 million center was one of the more visible losses of the riots of April. But less than a year later, it has been rebuilt ahead of schedule, and Taylor's dreams for the area — where she has lived in her grandmother's former home for more than two decades — are alive once more.

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The Mary Harvin Transformation Center will include 61 affordable apartments for senior citizens and a community center with job training, counseling for those living with HIV/AIDS and other services. The center is named for a founding member of Baltimore's 85-year-old Southern Baptist Church, which led the effort.

Before the fire, construction had been scheduled to end in November. Rebuilding began immediately after the April 27 blaze. The Woda Group Inc. finished the building 69 days early, said Senior Vice President Kevin V. Bell. A ribbon-cutting ceremony is expected next month.

The Rev. Donte L. Hickman Sr. said the 8,000-square-foot center is the second affordable-housing facility his church has built in the area — part of its master plan for improving the impoverished neighborhood.

"It was not just the fire of that building," Hickman said. "The neighborhood had been on fire for decades, with the ashes of vacant lots, abandoned buildings, houses with rat infestations, the disintegration of families, health issues and joblessness — what I would call financial, systemic oppression."

When he heard about the fire, Hickman was in West Baltimore with other pastors. It was the day of Freddie Gray's funeral, and clergy members were calling for peace amid the unrest.

Authorities believe it was arson but have made no arrests. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has offered a reward of up to $10,000 for information leading to convictions in the senior center fire and others that day.

Taylor had watched television coverage of the riots in West Baltimore before going to sleep. She awoke to the smell of smoke and a phone call from her daughter.

Her home on North Collington Street was just three blocks from the burning center, and her daughter feared for her safety. She picked up Taylor, and on their way out of the neighborhood, they stopped at the church, where members watched helplessly as the fire burned across the street.

As news crews arrived, the group formed a prayer circle. Though Hickman had not heard from the developer, contractors or insurance company, he committed on the spot to rebuilding the center.

"I had no idea how," the pastor said. "I had a confidence and a calm that could only have been spiritual."

State Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a 43-year member of Southern Baptist, had helped the church get financing for the center. He had no doubt it would rise again.

"We didn't flinch," he said, "because we knew, as Hebrews 11:1 says, 'Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.'"

The church had invested nearly $1 million in the project, he said, and it had taken a decade to acquire the necessary permits. Neighborhood opposition was another hurdle: The center initially was proposed as an HIV/AIDS clinic on Lanvale Street; neighbors who were already concerned about local methadone clinics cried foul.

The complex stands on a hill at Federal and Gay streets in the Broadway East neighborhood.

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The former home of the American Brewery has long been one of Baltimore's most desolate areas. Five people were killed last year in the neighborhood bordered by East North Avenue, North Broadway, East Biddle Street and North Milton Avenue.

The Baltimore Sun detailed the neighborhood's crime, poverty and blight in a series titled "A Neighborhood Abandoned" in 2006.

"The area has been in decline for more than three decades, most precipitously during the 1990s," the paper reported. "City Hall has alternately ignored or unsuccessfully tried to stem the deterioration."

A decade later, churches and other groups are gradually replacing the area's 1,200 vacant structures with new development.

Eric Booker, president of the Broadway East Community Association, noted positive signs: the nonprofit Humanim's offices in the old American Brewery building; the renovated Columbus School; a food hub at Wolfe, Gay and Oliver streets; and several parcels of affordable housing being built in the neighborhood.

To serve seniors moving into the Harvin Center, Booker said, he is working with the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's quasi-public development arm, to invest $500,000 in a farmers' market and eventually a grocery store at 1607 N. Washington St.

"There are small pockets of development now that I'm excited about, but the thing that's missing is the amenities," he said. "People need access to fresh food, just basic stuff."

Still, he said, there remain "these pockets of blight."

"If we can get some of the governor's demolition money to clear some space for some of these amenities," he said, "we will no longer see ourselves as being on 'the other side of the tracks.'"

When Taylor grew up on Hoffman Avenue in the 1950s, families lived in the rowhouses and kids played on the corners. Now only a few neighborhood stalwarts remain among the throng of abandoned houses, she said. Drugs are sold on the corners.

"When you have a lot of vacant homes, it leads to a lot of destruction," Taylor said.

She and others see the Harvin Center as a harbinger of neighborhood investment.

"We're going to transform that little part of Baltimore," McFadden said. "If they can rebuild Harbor East, we're going to show them we can rebuild Broadway East."

Bernard Corprew, a deacon at Southern Baptist, saw the fire as a reminder that God works in mysterious ways.

At first, he found himself at a loss.

"I was undone. I was really undone," he said. "I even questioned God on that one. How could he let that happen?"

But the next day, Corprew got a phone call. Images of the fire were plastered all over international news coverage. Donations were pouring in.

Southern Baptist received about $300,000 in the days after the fire, Hickman said. The money enabled the church to buy several more vacant properties, including two former liquor stores, to turn into affordable housing.

A 20-passenger church bus for seniors was another casualty of the blaze. The church replaced it with a 32-passenger shuttle.

Corprew said he doesn't know the arsonist's motive, but the church's enthusiasm for the project has not dampened.

"Whoever did that thing," he said, "they didn't get the last word."

He likened the experience to a father being told that his newborn had died at birth "only to see it come back alive."

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"It changed my whole mindset," the deacon said. "Sometimes God doesn't allow things to happen to you, but for you. It was done so that we would understand that he's still relevant and we can't do anything without him."

His sister, Evelyn Corprew, a senior usher at Southern Baptist, has been a member of the church for more than 50 years.

She fondly recalls marching with the congregation from the church's former building at East Preston and North Bond streets in Oliver to its current home on North Chester Street for its grand opening in 1972.

The unveiling of the Harvin Center, she said, will be just as euphoric.

"I'm grateful it happened for the community and for the seniors," she said.

Hickman hopes the senior center shows the church's determination to reclaim Broadway East for its residents.

"We're not finished," he said. "You can't plant one tree and call it a forest. We want to be the catalyst for development that transforms this neighborhood."

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