Workers demolish the final vacant building on Tivoly Avenue. The demolition effort was made as part of the mayor's Vacants to Value program. (Tom Brenner, Baltimore Sun)
Sweating in the 95-degree heat, Ralph Stewart guided the excavator's giant claw through the rowhouse's porch roof at 2783 Tivoly Ave. on the city's east side. As the structure crumbled, the assembled crowd of politicians, neighborhood leaders and city housing officials cheered.
This and another house next door were the last of 98 homes to be torn down on a block of Tivoly Avenue that City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said was once so rife with drug dealing that one could barely drive a car down it. On Thursday, this block across Harford Road from Clifton Park was eerily empty except for remaining piles of rubble.
Stewart, 63, lives a block away on Fenwick Avenue, which along with Hugo Avenue is also set to be cleared at some point. While the area used to be beautiful, he said his relocation can't come soon enough.
"I say, 'Please God, get me up out of here,'" he said. "Fenwick is in dire need of being torn down. It's very dangerous."
The demolition of Tivoly Avenue's vacant houses is part of the city's Vacants to Value program, which Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake launched in November 2010. Rawlings-Blake announced Thursday at the demolition that she would hold a summit this fall to highlight the nearly 5-year-old program's progress.
The program's goal was eliminating 1,500 vacant homes through demolition and leveraging private investment to rehab another 1,500. City officials said Thursday that about 1,500 vacant houses have been demolished while about 1,200 have been sold to developers to be renovated.
The city says it has more than 16,000 vacant houses, though the U.S. Census Bureau says the number could be as high as 23,000.
While officials and neighborhood leaders cheered the clearing of Tivoly Avenue, they said progress had been slow on a block they have complained about for years. Ten houses were demolished on the block in 2008 under the administration of Mayor Sheila Dixon. Seven more were razed in 2013, according to city records, with the rest not knocked down until recent months.
Clarke, who represents the area, blamed "money and priorities" for the delays but said she was excited to see progress seven years later.
"Several years ago, it was so thick with drug dealing in the street and traffic driving slowly through that you could barely drive up this street," she said. "So there was a lot of abandonment during that period and a lot of blight. A number of homeowners were left stranded, a lot of longtime renters as well."
"The money just hasn't been as forthcoming as we hoped," she added.
Money for Tivoly Avenue's demolition was first set aside in the Affordable Housing Program, a $60 million fund to reduce blight created by then-Mayor Martin O'Malley. The unfinished project dogged Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano.
"Frankly, we ran out of money under an earlier administration," Graziano said. "It was a little bit embarrassing for me to say, on my watch, that we started something we couldn't finish."
He said the city spent $5 million to relocate the last 41 families living on the block, whom he called "long-suffering." The demolition cost another $1.25 million.
Leveling these last homes was a bright spot for Rawlings-Blake after the city's vacants spent weeks on national television amid the unrest following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. She grew animated as she talked about Vacants to Value.
"It's one thing to say we have a problem, and there's people around town that are good at pointing out the problems," she said. "You know, a child can point out a problem, but that child can't fix it. You need leadership and partnership to fix it, and that's what we're about."
City and neighborhood officials hope the site will draw the interest of a developer who can build new housing there, preferably less densely. In the meantime, neighbors hope to turn it into a park, said Mark Washington, head of the Coldstream/Homestead/Montebello Community Corp.
One of the houses torn down Thursday, 2781 Tivoly Ave., was the site of one of the deadliest house fires in Baltimore history. A candle ignited a two-alarm blaze that killed 10 people in May 1982. The block also saw numerous killings and shootings over the years.
Washington said the neighborhood association will continue to press for demolition on Fenwick and Hugo avenues, similarly distressed streets in an area off Harford Road called the Tivoly Triangle. The group believes eliminating the blight will spur investment and help turn around for the neighborhood.
"It's not as bad today as it was a year ago, but we still have an overwhelming number of vacant houses," Washington said. "This block has had a somewhat tragic history. I think this symbolizes a rebirth of the community in general."
Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.