Last residents' move from Fairfield completes industrialization of area

Amid a heavy, unrelenting rain that quickly turned Weedon Street into a landscape of puddles, movers packed what they could Thursday morning at the Drake home, an isolated, wood-frame house whose residents were, until this week, the last holdouts against the complete industrialization of the Fairfield area in South Baltimore.

Inside the house, reachable by a makeshift walkway of cardboard and wood that promptly delivered visitors' feet into deepening pools of muddy water, Debbie Mitchell surveyed what was left in the house where she has lived for eight years with her friend, James Drake.

Two lamps, a box of liquid goods, a child's unopened toy on the mantel: It would all be out of the house soon, she assured the man working with the Baltimore Development Corp. to help carry out the move.

Mitchell and Drake have been friends for years, and she moved in eight years ago after both of their partners died, she said.

"It's peace and serenity here like you wouldn't believe," she said, noting what she considered the site's old-fashioned charm. She cooked for the two of them on a wood-burning stove that also helped heat the home, which lacked central heating. Drake, who ran an auto-repair business out of the back lot, never used any power tools, she said.

And, hinting at possibly supernatural mischief at play, Mitchell said there were closets and nooks in the century-old home that she had always been too scared to explore.

The pair's move to a Curtis Bay rowhouse — more than two years after the city initially bought the Weedon Street property from the Drake family — represents one fewer obstacle in a years-long effort by the city to remake Fairfield into a purely industrial hub. Within a month, Allied Contractors Inc. will raze the Drake home and begin relocating the company's yard there, said Roseann Walsh, a senior development officer for the BDC, the city's quasi-public development arm.

At his home Thursday — his for the next few minutes, at least — Drake declined to comment on the move. He had apparently been renting the home from older family members, who moved out long ago, until the city bought the property in 2008 for $60,000 from owner Delia Ann Harris, state and BDC records show. Walsh said the move was delayed until Drake found a rental home to his liking, and he will receive money from the city to cover his rent for the next several years.

The process of negotiating Drake's move from the property "has been difficult," said Larysa Salamacha, managing director of industrial development for BDC.

"In some ways it's a bittersweet event," she said. "Everybody is attached to their place."

Inside the home, a caved-in ceiling on the second floor had been covered up with plastic sheeting decorated with cartoon ghosts. Wood paneling on the walls was heavily warped, and corners and walls were patched with tape and wood boards.

Salamacha said she hoped the move would mean an improved standard of living for Drake.

"In that we hope that's a good thing for him," she said. "For us we're hoping it takes us one step closer to redeveloping the area."

The Weedon Street property will help make room for an expanding group of businesses now making their home in the industrial peninsula, Salamacha said. Tractor-trailers bustled back and forth Thursday morning along nearby Chesapeake Avenue and, visible from the Drake backyard, excavators picked their way through massive piles of old building materials at a scrap heap.

Heavy industry has by now erased nearly every sign of the area's residential history, though former residents said they remember when Fairfield lived up to its name, an almost rural escape from the city after World War II.

On the 1500 block of Brady Ave., around the corner from the Drake home, Robert Jones' grandmother raised geese, chickens and ducks, Jones said, and he learned from her how to grow a garden. Jones and his mother, Lorraine Curtis, were parked at the Drake home Thursday morning to lend support.

For years, they said, the city promised services — better-paved roads and sidewalks — that never came through.

"They kept saying they were going to do stuff, but they didn't," said Jones, who is 59. Curtis, 78, moved out of the neighborhood as a young woman, but said she and other family members often stayed with her mother, who lived in Fairfield until she died in the 1970s.

Mitchell said the reimbursement from the city to cover the Curtis Bay rent came out to about $34,000. Drake has not been able to find an affordable garage from which to continue his business, and Mitchell shrugged when asked how the two would get by.

"It's got to shut down," she said. "He's lived and worked here all his life."

Around noon Thursday, after the movers pulled out of the narrow, gravel road, Mitchell stopped by Curtis' car window to say goodbye.

"Thanks for caring," she said. "A whole lot of people came through here that touched this family and nobody really cares."

Curtis told her to take care of herself in the cold.

"I'm gonna get some heat," Mitchell replied. "There's no heat in the house. They took the heat with them."

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