Workers began to knock down five long-vacant rowhouses in Northeast Baltimore's Woodbourne-McCabe neighborhood Wednesday, part of an effort, city officials said, to draw new residents to an area where tidy brick homes stand next to boarded-up houses.
The demolition was the first under a program established by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to address the more than 30,000 vacant homes and lots in the city.
As a light rain fell Wednesday morning, workers nudged the front of a brick house with the claw-like arm of a hydraulic shovel. The wall buckled, then caved, showering faded bricks and water-stained boards onto a thicket of overgrown weeds that had overtaken the front lawn.
Community leaders, who had fought for years to get the city to tear down the vacants that have blighted the neighborhood just north of the intersection of York Road and Cold Spring Lane, cheered as the house crumbled. Within moments, the walls had fallen and the homes on either side flanked a view of a stand of trees.
"We're going to get this neighborhood back to what it used to be," said Monica Gaines, president of the Woodbourne-McCabe Association and a lifelong resident of the neighborhood.
Gaines said the community was a "vibrant" place where "we were all connected as one ... family" when she was a child, but the vacant homes had attracted crime and driven homeowners away. More than 30 vacant homes are scattered in the neighborhood, officials said.
"We want to get it back to the way it was when I was a little girl," she said.
Two nonprofit groups, Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity and Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore, plan to rehabilitate 23 other dwellings over the next two years. Officials hope to sell seven others through tax sale foreclosures.
"This is a big step forward to rid this neighborhood of blight," Rawlings-Blake said.
Neighbors poured out of their homes in the 700 block of McCabe Ave. to watch the demolition. Some of the two-story brick homes, which were built in the 1920s and 1930s, are surrounded by bright gardens, but many have been vacant for at least a decade.
Councilman Bill Henry, who represents the area, walked to the demolition from his office just a few blocks away. He described Woodbourne-McCabe as "a nice neighborhood that suffers from a lot of challenges."
"There's nothing like getting to knock down houses the community has wanted to knock down my whole time in office," said Henry, who was elected to represent the 4th District in 2007.
The street is named after Col. Lawrence B. McCabe, who was known as one of the nation's pre-eminent builders of railroads, bridges and tunnels. McCabe, who died in 1921, constructed bridges on North Avenue and St. Paul Street, among other projects, and the white-columned mansion he built for his family still stands a few blocks away.
The neighborhood began attracting crime in the late 1960s, according to a 1969 Baltimore Sun article, which said residents nicknamed a block "Sugar Alley" because of the cocaine sold there.
While the rosebushes and flowers planted in old tires decorated the blocks, "the presence of boarded houses mars the appearance of the street," according to the article.
McCabe Avenue drew attention in 1997 after a Morgan State University honor student was fatally shot in the head after he apparently made a wrong turn onto the 700 block.
Neighbors say frequent police patrols have kept crime down in recent years.
"It used to be dangerous, but all the houses where those people were are now vacant," said Ashley Carr, a 21-year-old Baltimore City Community College student who lives in the 600 block.
"The police come through and patrol every day," said Carr, who grew up nearby and has lived in her current home for three years. "It's not a bad block, but it needs reconstruction."
Karen DeCamp, president of the York Road Partnership, an umbrella group of community associations, said residents of the diverse neighborhoods that flank York Road have been trying to get the city to rehabilitate the neighborhood for years. Many of the vacant properties are owned by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.
"I'm proud to say that this is a project that brings people together across race and class lines," she said.
The houses were the first to be torn down under Rawlings-Blake's Vacants to Values program, a six-pronged program introduced last fall.
Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said the Woodbourne-McCabe initiative encapsulates the program's key tenets — eliminating blight and encouraging growth in neighborhoods that could be attractive to new residents.
"Our goal is to address 100 percent the blight in this area," he said.
Graziano said costs constrain the city from demolishing more vacant homes. Taking down the five homes in Woodbourne-McCabe — two on each side of McCabe Avenue and one around the corner on Glenwood Avenue — cost $88,000 he said.
The demolition contract was awarded to P&J Contracting Co.
The housing department has sold 116 homes during the fiscal year that began July 1 and is on track to close an additional 65 sales by the end of this year, Deputy Housing Commissioner Julie Day said. The department sold 100 of the approximately 3,500 vacant homes it owns last year.
Since she was promoted to oversee the housing disposition unit, housing officials said, Day has cut about a third of the staff and streamlined the process of buying a city property.
Deputy Commissioner Michael Braverman, meanwhile, has focused his code enforcement team on 193 vacant properties in eight "emerging markets" in East and Northwest Baltimore that are attractive to developers.
Officials have slapped $900 citations on vacant properties to try to get landlords to begin the rehabilitation of nearly half of those homes, he said.
Graziano acknowledged that officials remain far from making a dent in the city's vacant properties, but said the Vacants to Values program was a good start.
"This is not going to change overnight, but we can make a huge impact in these targeted areas," he said.
Back on McCabe Avenue, Givon Thompson leaned out of his front door to watch workers smashing the remains of one of the vacant homes.
"I'm not affected by the ghost-town kind of feel," said Thompson, an abstract artist. "I can see everything has potential."
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.