Just another night outside St. Peter Claver Church in Sandtown. A prostitute in a purple tank top and black Lycra pants gobbles down the last of her Chinese carryout dinner and jumps into the passenger side of a beat-up Chevy heading north on Pennsylvania Avenue. Two old men trade swigs from a whiskey bottle while sitting on the steps of a boarded-up row house a block down from the Sphinx Club. A toddler in the doorway of the corner carryout, waiting for his mother to place her food order, stares wide-eyed as a police helicopter zooms by overhead.
Just another muggy night in Sandtown. Or is it?
Down in the basement of the old Catholic church, one level and half a world away from the whiskey bottles in the gutter and ramshackle buildings and prostitutes, is a far brighter scene: Seven women from the neighborhood gathered around a small table, eyes closed, imagining what it will be like to own a house in the area.
"I'm going to enjoy the yard, especially in the warmer months," says one.
"I'm going to like the living room and the kitchen," says another.
"What I'm going to enjoy most is not having a landlord," says a third. "Not having to call the landlord every time something goes wrong."
It may seem unusual that anyone with money enough to buy a house would even consider doing so in a neighborhood as rough as Sandtown, much less look forward to it. But this isn't business as usual. These women -- some young, some old, but all examples of the "working poor" who have never had a house of their own -- are among the first of 300 low-income buyers of new town houses that are being built this summer in sections of Baltimore's Penn-North and Sandtown-Winchester neighborhoods, some just a few blocks from the dangerous drug and crime zone near the church itself.
Instead of fleeing the area, these buyers are making a commitment to invest in it and turn it back into the safe, reputable neighborhood it used to be. They are so committed to the idea that they're coming to the church on weeknights for hourlong workshops on budget management, home maintenance and "community empowerment," courses that the builders of the houses are sponsoring to make them better owners. Everyone is operating under the premise that, once they move in, it won't be just another night in Sandtown.
"We want to build a community, not just put you in a home," one of the workshop leaders tells buyers. "We want to build the whole neighborhood up."
IN ITS CURRENT STATE, SANDTOWN may seem to have little in common with the glitz and glitter of Baltimore's Harborplace, the waterfront pleasure domes whose opening in 1980 did more than anything else to spark the revitalization of the Inner Harbor. But they do share one important element: the watchful eye of urban visionary Jim Rouse.
If Baltimore's pre-Harborplace waterfront typified the blighted commercial districts where this nationally prominent developer focused his attention during his last years as head of the Rouse Co., Sandtown is representative of the even more squalid areas that he wants to rejuvenate today. It is also the first of three communities around the nation to be chosen for a "neighborhood transformation demonstration project" of the Enterprise Foundation, the non-profit organization that 77-year-old Mr. Rouse and his wife, Patty, founded nearly 10 years ago to provide fit and livable housing for the poor.
Accorded near-legendary status for his work at the Rouse Co. -- creating some of the nation's first enclosed shopping centers, launching the city of Columbia, and revitalizing center cities with festival markets such as Faneuil Hall and Harborplace, among other feats -- Mr. Rouse raised eyebrows 10 years ago when, instead of retiring, he began working full time to help the poor. Since its founding, Enterprise has helped 130 neighborhood groups in 60 cities build or rehabilitate 15,000 houses -- more than any other organization of its kind in the country.
But despite Enterprise's accomplishments so far, Mr. Rouse says, many people still don't believe anything can really be done to reverse the deterioration of human beings at the bottom of society. So now that Enterprise has demonstrated what can be done to rehabilitate housing, he wants to take the process to the next level and put more emphasis on rehabilitating whole communities -- and the people who live there.
Earlier this month he relinquished his role as chief executive officer of the Enterprise Foundation and passed the mantle to his two chief deputies, F. Barton Harvey III and Paul C. Brophy. Although he will continue to work full time as chairman of Enterprise, and Patty Rouse will still serve as secretary-treasurer and board member, he turned the day-to-day responsibilities over to others largely so he will have more time for projects of special concern to him. Chief among them is the neighborhood transformation project, in which he hopes to change up to three inner-city neighborhoods from bad communities to good communities, all with the same people living there.
And he is betting that once the effort is under way, once there is tangible evidence that something can be done, people will be inspired to do it in every city, just as they sought to replicate his shopping centers and festival marketplaces all across the country.
"What we're saying is that the existing conditions in the U.S. must be transformed, and the only way they can be transformed is by demonstrating that it can be done," he says. "We will raise up models for people to look at, so they can see this is what the neighborhood was and this is what it is and this is what it cost. And it's a reasonable hunch that it would cost less to correct the conditions in such a neighborhood than to pay to sustain them."
An eternal optimist known for his strong convictions, equally at ease with the rich or the poor, Mr. Rouse is no stranger to challenges. But in more than 50 years as a builder and developer, he says, he has never confronted a challenge as tough as this.
"Finding the answer to AIDS may be more difficult," he says. "Putting up a space station is surely more difficult. But in our field, I don't think there's anything more important or more difficult. Yet we've got to do it."
WHILE ENTERPRISE WAS FORMULATing plans for its demonstration project, other factors were at work that made Sandtown an ideal candidate.
Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was eager to launch projects that would benefit neighborhoods largely untouched by the downtown renaissance. He had visited the city of Kiryat Gat in Israel and was impressed with the idea of a self-maintaining, self-sufficient community. He was looking for a way to go beyond bricks and mortar and link human services more effectively with physical improvements.
The residents of Sandtown were eager for a change, too. Early in Mr. Schmoke's term, they asked for his help in reclaiming their neighborhood from the drug dealers and others who had made it practically unlivable.
"It's like the Third World," says the Rev. Robert Kearns, priest of St. Peter Claver Church. The stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue from Robert Street to Cumberland Street is "a major drug and prostitution area. Not a night goes by that I don't hear the police helicopter at least five times, close enough that it could land on the roof."
Bounded by Pennsylvania and Fremont avenues on the east, North Avenue on the north, Monroe Street on the west and Lafayette Avenue on the south, Sandtown takes its name from the sandy soil prevalent in much of west Baltimore. Winchester is an east-west street that bisects the area. With approximately 12,000 residents, it's plagued by high unemployment and a significant number of families at or below the poverty level.
One of Sandtown's biggest problems is that it was bypassed by much of the redevelopment activity that benefited other parts of the city in the 1970s and 1980s, even nearby Upton. Yet from a planning point of view, Sandtown is a logical area to focus on because it's close to downtown; it's served by two subway stations, and it has a strong allegiance from Baltimoreans who remember the way it used to be.
"There was a strong sense of community and family here," Father Kearns says, "and people remember that."
The beginning of the neighborhood transformation effort came in 1989, when the Schmoke administration, Enterprise and a group called Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, a coalition of 45 churches that work to revitalize inner-city neighborhoods, applied for federal funds to build housing in West Baltimore. Money was to come from the Nehemiah program, the first major federal housing initiative in several years, named for the Old Testament figure who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem.
Working with Baltimore's housing department and Commissioner Robert Hearn, Enterprise and BUILD proposed to create 300 residences, including 223 new houses and 17 rehabilitated houses in Sandtown. The two-story, three-bedroom residences would be sold for as low as $256 per month to those who qualify for a $37,000 first mortgage at 4 percent interest, making them affordable to those who earn as little as $11,000 a year. Their $25 million venture received $4.2 million in federal funds, the largest Nehemiah grant any city has received.
That grant became the impetus for a broader effort, called
Community Building in Partnership and generally referred to as the Sandtown Project. As long as the city was involved with physical redevelopment of the area, officials reasoned, why not address social problems at the same time?
"Over the last few years, it has become increasingly apparent that the solution to many of the ills within urban areas requires a holistic approach," Mayor Schmoke says. "The thrust of urban planning must change. Above all, the residents of the community must be involved in and committed to change for real change to occur."
The timing was just right, too, for Mr. Rouse and his associates at Enterprise. They had decided after a two-day retreat in 1989 to identify up to three poverty-striken neighborhoods that could be transformed, with the help of the local government and the community itself, for their national demonstration project. The key, Mr. Rouse says, is to focus a number of efforts in one place at the same time.
"There are wonderful things happening around the country -- an experimental school over here, an experiment drug program over there, experimental health care somewhere else. But nowhere have we undertaken the task of transforming a very poor and very deteriorated neighborhood into a good neighborhood, with the same people living there. . . . From that, you build the momentum, build the spirit, build the images of the possible beyond what people would have thought was possible."
In short, "The whole system has got to evolve," he says. "A whole ethos in this community has got to evolve that doesn't exist."
IN JANUARY OF 1990, THE mayor appointed the Sandtown-Winchester Task Force to guide the planning process, with representatives from the community, the city, the Baltimore Urban League, BUILD and Enterprise. The mayor asked the task force to develop a plan -- a neighborhood charter, essentially -- that would reflect what residents want in Sandtown on issues ranging from health care to employment, schools to substance abuse.
So far, the group has come up with a 10-point "vision statement" for the neighborhood, and over the past year eight work groups have met to come up with strategies for areas such as physical development, crime and safety, family support services and community pride.
The examples of what might be achieved are potentially wide ranging: Local schools managed by the principal, teachers and parents -- rather than a central bureaucracy. Tenant management teams to run public housing projects. "Enrichment centers" to provide job training. BUILD and the Schmoke administration are also anxious to see community-oriented policing -- police officers placed on permanent neighborhood assignment to solve community problems and prevent crimes, not just respond after they occur.
Starting this month, task force members will be meeting with experts that Enterprise is bringing in to discuss successful approaches to areas such as education and health care delivery. According to Diane Bell-McKoy, special assistant to Mayor Schmoke for human services and chairman of the task force, Enterprise has agreed to pay $100,000 a year for three years to support the effort, including the salary of a community organizer who will begin work in Sandtown this fall. Enterprise officials have predicted the transformation process in Baltimore could eventually cost more than $6 million a year.
Mr. Rouse and Ms. Bell-McKoy say they can't be specific yet about who will oversee and carry out the transformation effort except to say it will be a yet-to-be-formed entity representing the residents, the city government and other "stakeholders" in the -- area.
If it works, the Sandtown project could indeed provide one of the models that Enterprise officials want to use to show what can be done to help people at the bottom of society, just as the Rouse Co.'s Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston showed how old buildings could be given new life and help enliven the city around them.
To Mr. Rouse, who coined the term "urban renewal" and wrote a 1955 treatise called "No Slums in 10 Years," the Sandtown project has many more parallels with the planning effort that led to Columbia, the still-evolving city of more than 70,000 that the Rouse Co. launched in the 1960s.
"So much of what we're trying to do now is like what we were trying to do at the beginning of Columbia -- calling in people from all the different life functions and trying to see how we can make it work better," he says.
With the inner-city effort, he says, "we're starting out saying here is a neighborhood of people who are suffering because life doesn't work for them." In both cases, the "potential for a new and better life is being conceptualized" and "the attempt is being made to implement it."
Mr. Rouse is careful to stress, however, that Enterprise is not in it alone and cannot do it alone. Ultimately, "it's the mayor's project, the city's project," he says. "It can't happen anywhere without the mayor and the city."
NO MATTER HOW GOOD THE plans are, it is the residents who ultimately determine whether a community is a success. And judging from the first occupants of the Nehemiah houses, there are plenty of buyers who are delighted to be part of the effort and eager to help make it work.
One of the most excited is Mary Malachi, a retired nurse's assistant who just moved into a Penn-North home with her husband, Paul. At 64, she says, she never dreamed she would be able to retire in her own house. But BUILD and Enterprise created a community that was affordable enough that she and her husband could take advantage of it. "This is really a gift," she says. "I have worked ever since I was 16 years old, and I never thought something like this would come along for someone like me."
A deeply religious woman who attends St. Peter Claver Church -- and had her house blessed by Father Kearns right after the settlement was over -- Mrs. Malachi sits on the board of the Sandtown-Winchester Improvement Association and works part time as a receptionist at the Urban Services Agency. She is optimistic that the Nehemiah homeowners won't be overwhelmed by the problems of crime and drugs.
"People just have to pull together and join in," she says. "I don't care where you live. There are going to be drugs wherever you are. But you can work together to make it better."
Most of the buyers are single women, including many who are both working and raising children. Typical of their spunkiness is Willa Mae Wilson, a 41-year-old single parent who works as a $19,000-a-year telephone information officer for the Social Security Administration.
Standing in the kitchen of her new home on Retreat Street, Ms. Wilson says she had been renting the same apartment near Sinai Hospital for 16 years so she could have enough money to pay tuition to send her son Dennis to Catholic school. Now that he graduated this year and is headed to Morgan State University in the fall, she says, she was finally able to afford a home of her own.
Ms. Wilson has noticed that many of her neighbors are single women and is philosophical about it. "You've just got to be ambitious and go for what you want," she says. "You can't think, 'Because I don't have a man I'm not going to do what I want to do.' "
Mr. Rouse says he's looking for ways to reach more young men. In the meantime, the workshops sponsored by Enterprise and BUILD play a key role in making sure the buyers work together to keep the community up. They not only give residents a chance to meet each other before they move in, but they also provide a useful primer on "the joys of homeownership."
The tone of the workshops is set largely by Rosa McCoy, a community development specialist with Enterprise, who has a kind face but comes across as a Scrooge in the budget department. A Cherry Hill resident who joined Enterprise three years ago, she sternly advises buyers about everything from drafting wills to upgrading their insurance coverage to not running up their credit card bills.
"The first year in your new home is going to be your most difficult time," she tells the buyers, who listen in rapt attention. "That's when you need to stick to your budget, so you will be prepared for any emergency. Don't try to buy everything new and fluffy the first year. And beware of door-to-door salesmen. They'll try to sell you everything."
Ms. McCoy promises to visit each buyer after six, 12 and 18 months to see how they're doing, and says the contractor also will schedule visits to correct any construction defects. Above all, she says, buyers should know there is a network of people to support them.
Because of the pioneering nature of the project, she warns, a lot of outside observers will be watching to see how it turns out. "For those who are looking at this and saying it's not going to work, we're trying to think of all the things you are going to need and have them for you," she says. "Never think a question is too stupid to ask. If you know your job is closing or you are fired, get to me. I'll help you. One thing we don't want is any foreclosures."
IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO SAY how long the transformation process in Sandtown could take, except that it won't happen overnight. As with any venture this ambitious, there is some skepticism that any community would be able to pull it off. Lack of funds is one potential problem, and lack of cooperation between agencies could be another. But participants in Baltimore are optimistic that this grass-roots approach could be a national model for a more efficient use of public dollars in a poverty-plagued neighborhood.
"It's a risky experiment," urban experts Neil Peirce and Curtis Johnson wrote in their recent report on the city's prospects, "Baltimore and Beyond." "It will be in danger of sabotage by a raft of specialized government agencies whose turf it threatens."
But if it works, they said, "if a good chunk of a neighborhood's residents can start their climb out of dependency, the whole region will have evidence that today's grinding, deep social divisions need not be forever."
According to Ms. Bell-McKoy, some human service links are already falling into place. The city has received a $3 million grant for the Baltimore Project, a program designed to study high-risk pregnancies and provide follow-up care. It also received a $2.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to help develop a comprehensive program to create a hub for the delivery of services to the community.
One sign that at least some outside observers believe the effort may work is that the mayor's office is getting flak from other communities whose residents have noticed the attention Sandtown is receiving and want the same for their communities. Mayoral aides say the city has initiated other ventures such as the Dunbar Project, a similarly multifaceted community building effort for the area around Dunbar High School, but that not every area needs a campaign as intense and concentrated as Sandtown's.
At Enterprise, meanwhile, even though the organization has hundreds of projects around the nation, neighborhood transformation is clearly at the top of Mr. Rouse's thoughts. It's practically all he talks about. And he, for one, is not concerned about the potential for neighborhood rivalry. If this effort succeeds, he says, it will be all the more reason to try it rTC elsewhere.
"The ballgame we're playing is, with the city, to discover and demonstrate how a neighborhood can be transformed, in order that the city can see that the whole city ought to be transformed," he says. "That's the game. It's not just to do a neighborhood. It's to be a model for what the city can be."
EDWARD GUNTS writes about real estate and architecture for the Sun.