As the current occupant of a quirky 136-year-old Victorian town house on Union Square, I find myself drawn to other aging neighborhoods.
Often when I feel distressed about the city and its prospects, I drive to the marble-step-rowhouse streets around Patterson Park. In Butcher's Hill and surrounding areas someone always seems to be tinkering and has the scaffolding up. That lifts up my spirits, particularly if the weather cooperates and sun is shining.
On one house tour, I was inspired by a number of residents who had taken dingy wrecks facing the park on Baltimore Street and turned them into showpieces, often at costs comparable to buying a suburban starter home without any character.
This wave of renovation was especially satisfying because none of the Patterson Park communities was mentioned in the early-1970s planning documents and books about Baltimore's revival neighborhoods. They just happened. New families reclaimed long-neglected houses, giving them a new lease on life.
As a bonus, they could admire views of the harbor or the downtown skyline from their rooftop decks.
This revival is now endangered.
According to a new study sponsored by six non-profit development corporations and 10 community organizations, a dozen neighborhoods around Patterson Park that are home to 30,000 people are "experiencing elements of destructive and destabilizing change."
The 53-page study details such phenomena leading to uncertainty as a high percentage of senior-citizen homeowners; a glut of houses for sale; conversion of owner-occupied units to rentals; increasing numbers of vacant and boarded-up houses; decreasing family income, and growing sanitation and crime problems.
"Left unchecked, these trends lead to a final decline of solid, working-class neighborhoods, to a dramatic reduction in family home equity with a corresponding drop in city tax revenue (conservatively estimated at over $1.5 million per year), and to the eventual introduction of similar problems in neighborhoods to the east and south, much of which is Baltimore's 'gold coast' " in Canton and Fells Point, the study warns.
On Tuesday, the study's sponsors met with city housing and planning officials to discuss their proposal for a "Patterson Park neighborhoods intervention initiative." They were asking the city to fund a comprehensive, two-year stabilization program that would cost $300,000. The city is mulling over the idea.
The non-profits and community organizations are ready to go. They are approaching private foundations and other funding sources, wanting to launch a block-by-block rescue plan in some fashion May 1. At the end of its first year of operation, they hope to be working on 15 targeted blocks.
If houses become vacant on those blocks, they want to be able to intervene and buy the properties, rehabilitate them and find buyers or quality tenants for them. The organizations also want to address such thorny questions as code enforcement and sanitation problems. They want to whip bad neighbors into shape and to recruit new homeowners and renters committed to multiracial and multicultural living.
Ed Rutkowski, a computer programmer who worked on the proposal, thinks many old-timers are willing to stay, if they see evidence of steps taken to prevent the neighborhood from going to pot. But as long as their repeated complaints about such elementary things as code violations and disorderly neighbors go uncorrected, they have an acute sense of neighborhood deterioration and their own powerlessness.
"That powerlessness just causes people to want to leave," Mr. Rutkowski says.
Parts of the target area are experiencing a rapid racial and socio-economic change. On some blocks, black renters on subsidy programs have replaced aging white-ethnic homeowners. As this socio-economic decline happens, vacant properties become harder and harder to market to homeowners of any race.
The study readily acknowledges that in terms of racial perceptions, the Patterson Park neighborhoods often face a catch-22 situation: They have a hard time attracting whites because the area is changing and a hard time attracting blacks because they see it as racist.
Some of the city's most reputable non-profits teamed up with the Patterson Park neighborhoods to come up with the intervention initiative. Mr. Rutkowski is optimistic things will improve. "If anything is going to work, this is going to work," he says.
Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.