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Johnston Square appears to be turning the corner

The banner at Greenmount Avenue and Preston Street proclaims the Lillian Jones Apartments are coming. For the past year, I've watched this building take shape in a neighborhood that needed all the help it could get. Come spring, new tenants will begin moving into these 74 units of affordable housing.

As City Councilman Carl Stokes told me, Greenmount and Preston had been a "horrible corner." That's changed as work crews complete the apartment building and rebuild numerous adjacent rowhouses. As I walked along Greenmount Avenue, I thought that the Johnston Square neighborhood, which was used for background in "The Wire," is turning a corner.

Architect Cho Benn Holback's stylish apartment house with a sunny courtyard has risen just below the south wall of historic Green Mount Cemetery. From the new building's upper floors, you can spot the grave of John Wilkes Booth and the landmark burial ground's mortuary chapel. The apartment's entrance is along Hoffman Street, the thoroughfare atop the main Amtrak rail tunnels in East Baltimore.

The name Lillian Jones intrigued me. I learned from the apartment house's developer, Jim French, that her neighbors proposed the name as a memorial to the community activist, who has spent a lifetime believing in Johnston Square.

"My parents moved to 1034 Valley St. in 1956," said her son, Walter Jones Jr., who still lives in the family home, located just south of Johnston Square park. "There were only two or three black families living on our block then."

He said his mother is 93 and now lives with his sister, who is her caregiver.

Moving to a home of her own on Valley Street nearly six decades ago was a bold step for her, he said. His father, Walter Jones Sr., worked at the Bethlehem Steel shipyard. His mother also worked there when jobs were available.

Their move to Valley Street represented a big change for the Joneses. The family had previously lived in a public housing development. He said that times were so tough for them that when beds weren't available, they slept on the floor.

Lillian Jones was a determined worker, he told me. When work slacked off at Bethlehem Steel, she took a job at the old Seton Institute, the Northwest Baltimore psychiatric hospital. He recalled meeting her as she got off a streetcar at Lexington Market, where she shopped at the old Schreiber's market. He helped carry her grocery bags. She also shopped for the family meals at the Bel Air Market in nearby Oldtown.

He recalled her love of Valley Street, located in the part of Baltimore also known as the 10th Ward when it was filled with Irish families in the years before the Joneses arrived.

She began attending community meetings and became familiar with government programs such as Model Cities, the Community Action Agency and Urban Services.

"She believed in Johnston Square," he said. "She liked those meetings."

The Lillian Jones Apartments in Johnston Square seem to fit into a set of changes now arriving along Greenmount Avenue. I approached the neighborhood via Barclay Street and recalled that this part of Baltimore was once filled with vacant houses. That day, they seemed less numerous. Work crews were busy at Barclay and 21st as they constructed a new batch of residences.

Change is in the air here. I looked over the city's new design school at Barclay and Oliver, then discovered another new block of homes had risen near the entrance to Green Mount Cemetery.

Only a year ago, much was promised here. This day I could see results.

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