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'Out of choices': Urban pioneers abandon inner cities Revitalization trend falls short of hopes


When the Rev. Lance Gifford peers into the gilded mirror in the large, handsome living room of his West Baltimore row house, it reflects the riches of a life: He and his wife were married in front of this mirror, and it has born silent witness to the childhoods of two daughters.

Mr. Gifford, a 47-year-old Episcopal minister, bought the house on Hollins Street 18 years ago, reclaiming it from near-ruin during a "back-to-the-city" movement that swept through many older U.S. cities in the 1980s.

Three months ago, Mr. Gifford and his wife, Margy McCampbell, listed for sale the house they have so lovingly tended. It was a particularly painful decision for Mr. Gifford, who conceded, "I am, finally, giving up."

In many of the cities associated with revitalized neighborhoods -- Baltimore; Kansas City, Mo.; Columbus, Ohio; Washington; and Detroit, among them -- urban pioneers are beginning to rethink a lifestyle that has become so sullied by encroaching crime and eroding public services that some are beginning to abandon the neighborhoods they had claimed as their own a decade earlier.

"The difficult part is acceptance of the fact that we lost the battle," said Mr. Gifford, who in 1973 began rehabilitating the house in a stately block of elegant row houses near historic Hollins Market.

"There was this belief that this particular block could be reclaimed as a neighborhood. In 1973, there were a lot of us who felt that way," he said of a community that has tended to attract downtown professionals, university students and artists. "Sadly, we've become dinosaurs in our own community."

Although final reports will not be released until next year, demographers and geographers studying data collected in the 1990 census say a preliminary review of education and income levels indicates that those who embraced the back-to-the-city movement have begun to join the middle-class migration to the suburbs.

The gentrification of old downtown neighborhoods in cities in the Northeast and Midwest has largely stopped, according to demographers, economists and urban sociologists, who say the movement failed to live up to its promise.

Among the reasons for the decline, urban specialists say, are the loss of federal tax incentives for renovators; the perception that cities are increasingly unsafe; unacceptable public schools; and a misreading a decade ago that many of the young urban pioneers would remain childless and that this particular generation had somehow rejected suburbia as a choice.

"Gentrification was never a guaranteed revival," said Kathryn Nelson, an economist with the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"It was the basis on which to potentially build. While a few people gentrified, a lot more people moved out of the central cities, as they've always done. I love cities, and I would really like to say that cities are coming back, but to say that would be irresponsible."

Overall, demographers say, gentrification has had no net effect on cities, except in a very localized way.

In the 1970s, the theory was that a few gentrified areas would have a contagious effect and pull up neighboring districts. Although that didn't happen, urban specialists do expect most cities to preserve some enclaves of housing for small numbers of middle- to upper-income residents.

"Certainly, the residential rehabs and the commercial construction of the 1980s transformed the image of cities," said Larry Long, a demographer for the U.S. Census Bureau.

"But that didn't necessarily induce people to live near the centers of cities. In some ways, it's surprising the terrific amount of new construction didn't have more demographic effects than are evident so far.

"The numbers do not look good for central city neighborhoods," he said. "I think it's fairly safe to say that gentrification has come and gone."

In some ways, Hyde Park was the special promise of Kansas City, Mo.

Dozens of the sturdy homes in the middle-class neighborhood were rehabilitated by determined urban homesteaders who created a caring community where, every year since 1976, they have celebrated with a festival and a tour of showcase homes.

This year, however, the Hyde Park celebration was tempered with sad introspection: Two years ago, as the festival was winding down to a contented close, the publicity chairman of the community association was held up at gunpoint. It was a sign of things to come.

Burglaries, robberies and auto break-ins have increased dramatically, despite the efforts of neighborhood patrol volunteers and a private security force.

Free-lance photographer Lauren Chapin, 32, lives with her husbandin a lovely apartment on the outskirts of Hyde Park. The couple is looking for a house to rent in the suburbs.

"Just drive around the city and look at all the for-sale signs," Ms. Chapin said. "In some measure, I feel like we're being driven out. I simply cannot do the things I used to do: I try to get in before dark, I always have my keys at the ready, I check the streets before I get out of the car. It's a defensive way of living."

In coming years, according to urban specialists, the middle class will continue to abandon the central cities, leaving behind low-income residents, small numbers of middle- to upper-income groups living in isolated enclaves and, increasingly, immigrants.

Less than one-third of adults between the ages of 25 and 45 live in central cities, according to 1990 census figures. The great majority in that age group live in suburbs. And most who live in the suburbs also work there.

"It's not a pull to the suburbs, it's a push," said Lou Masotti, a professor of management and urban development who splits his time between Northwestern and Stanford universities. "Cities are suffering a kind of demographic hemorrhaging. People who've hung in till now are saying [they] can't hack the drugs, the crime, the sense of insecurity and the anticipated diminution of their property values.

"But everything that is urban is also suburban. The suburbs are not Shangri-la," said Mr. Masotti, a lover of the complexity, diversity and dynamics of city life. "I have this sort of historic, nostalgic notion about cities, but there aren't enough like me around to offset the people who are leaving to seek their own sense of comfort and security."

A 'sense of togetherness'

The way Ms. McCampbell puts it, those early years on Hollins Street were "like the good old pioneers -- a barn raising."

"Instead of borrowing a cup of sugar, we'd borrow a cup of nails. There was a real sense of togetherness, of making the neighborhood work," said Ms. McCampbell, 40, an English instructor at Catonsville Community College. "We were married in this very room. Our family has grown up within these walls."

Her daughters, Carrie, 11, and Meg, 9, were born at University Hospital, just a few blocks from the row house.

"The girls are growing up. They want to hang out. You cannot hang out here, and you cannot say to a child: 'Only walk this way,' " Mr. Gifford said. "They hear gunshots. They know about needles. I know that by moving we're not getting away from the liability of crime, but we will feel safer. I'm tired of the sirens. I'm tired of the helicopters. I'm tired of the stinking air. The thought of moving is painful, but we have run out of choices."

Soon, the mirror in their living room will record the Gifford family's sad departure.

Six doors down Hollins Street, businessman Steve Loewentheil and his family pulled up stakes a month ago after living on the block for seven years. Mr. Loewentheil, 40, has rehabilitated dozens of houses in the neighborhood for moderate-income families and, near Hollins Market, he has opened a rare book store and invested in two restaurants. His wife, Beth, is a federal public defender.

"One would think that when the physical aspects of a neighborhood have come along as far as this one has that government services would lead the way forward," Mr. Loewentheil said. "I understand the city has financial limitations, but when you get to the point where you have children, the reason for the failure of city services no longer matters. If my child cannot go across the street and play in a city park at the age of 10, I don't really care anymore.

"We're not moving for what the suburbs offer, but for what the city does not offer: public safety. How can you expect people to stay here if it's not safe? These are local issues but national problems," he said.

"It is with sadness, not anger, that I'm moving."

'Unrealistic promises'

Realtor Mary Horst, who has renovated two houses in Hyde Park, has been robbed once and burglarized twice. Three lawn mowers have been stolen from her yard, and her car has been broken into twice.

She loves the neighborhood -- and she is staying.

"Am I going to change my lifestyle out of fear?" she says. "Or am I going to live my life the way I want to live it? For me it's an easy call: I am not going to move to a Wonder Bread land of split-level ranches and go to cocktail parties and discuss nuances of the color beige.

"I love the way of life where I am, and I don't want to see our heritage, our historic homes, given up," said the 36-year-old Mrs. Horst, who is married and has no children. "Moving further and further from the city does not solve the problems that exist here."

Gentrification has become so passe in academic circles that few study it anymore, focusing instead on the urban underclass.

"It was so interesting because it was so promising to people," said Daphne Spain, an associate professor of urban and environmental studies at University of Virginia who in 1980 edited one of the first books on gentrification, "Back to the City."

"But the promises were unrealistic," she said. "There were never enough people to fuel a turnaround. It's impossible for one group of young, middle- to high-income people to overturn decades of neglect.

"Still, middle-class homebuyers now consider cities in ways they never did before. Cities have become an option in ways not open to the middle-class in earlier generations," she said. "That is the legacy of gentrification."

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