When the first City Fair was held in 1970, few suburbanites ventured downtown at night. Not only was there little to see but fear of crime was pervasive. Yet only a few years later -- partly due to enthusiasm generated by the City Fair -- Baltimore became a textbook of urban renaissance with Inner Harbor attractions and the $1 row houses that homesteaders miraculously transformed into some of the most desirable housing in the city.
Two decades later, we welcome the City Fair once again. A vagabond of various locations, it is being held on 33rd Street this weekend. The site, across from Memorial Stadium, is an appropriate way to say farewell to the old ballpark now that the Orioles are about to fly to their new roost at Camden Yards. After years of identity crisis, the City Fair, also appropriately, is again 00 focusing on neighborhoods, which played such a crucial part of Baltimore's urban renaissance in the 1970s.
A 1972 book, "Buying and Renovating a House in the City," listed Mount Vernon, Bolton Hill, Seton Hill, Dickeyville, Union Square, Federal Hill, Charles Village and Fells Point as Baltimore's renewal neighborhoods. Although improvement has been slow in some cases, all of those areas today are in far better shape than they were at the time the book was published. Vacant houses are being transformed into "gentrified" homes in many other areas as well, particularly in neighborhoods around Patterson Park, from Butchers Hill to Canton.
The flip side of the coin is that vacant houses, in absolute numbers, are on a dangerous increase in the city. Moreover, the city is witnessing a new phenomenon -- a wholesale abandonment of neighborhoods that have been taken over by drug-dealers and other criminals. It is an open question whether such new home ownership programs as the $25-million Nehemiah venture in West Baltimore can turn this tide -- or even survive.
The economics of rehabilitating an abandoned house have much changed since the 1970s. Yet even though many of the federally financed low-interest loan programs disappeared a long time ago, there are still people who have so much faith in Baltimore City that they take their savings and decide to save a wreck. A splendid example is Dorothy Talbot, a single woman who is transforming a small two-story row house that most people wouldn't even look at near Hollins Market.
Baltimore City's strengths are its residential neighborhoods and the people who take care of their homes. Many of those Baltimoreans will be at the 22nd City Fair this weekend sharing their pride with others.