Miracles in West Baltimore


Most people do not believe in miracles. Yet miracles do happen. Just go and look at West Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester, a community off Fulton Avenue (below North Avenue).

The building stage of one of the most ambitious low-income housing programs in Baltimore's history was recently completed there. A total of 227 homes were built or rehabilitated in Sandtown under the Nehemiah project and sold to low and moderate-income families who now will have a stake in the the area's turnaround. (Another 73 units were built in nearby Penn North).

Meanwhile, more than 200 volunteers have been busy this week, reconstructing 20 vacant rowhouses in what is ultimately hoped to be a 100-home Habitat for Humanity recovery effort in Sandtown. Those houses will then be sold to local residents for an average of $30,000 each.

"I know one thing. I'm going to take care of mine -- and help others to take care of theirs," says William Elliott, a 67-year-old retired shipping clerk who has been renting in Sandtown since 1949 and hopes to move to his own house by Christmas.

Sandtown is one of those Baltimore inner-city neighborhoods which has been hit hard both by the exodus of the black middle class and the phasing out of smokestack industries. As median income has declined -- it is now estimated at $10,000 a year -- the number of vacant houses has skyrocketed and the level of rental units deteriorated. Yet the existing housing stock is generally solid and repairable.

This has enabled waves of volunteers -- who have included former President Jimmy Carter -- to join with prospective home owners in repair blitzes that are beginning to change the bombed-out look of some Sandtown streets. After the first 15 rowhouses were reconstructed last year, local residents as well as outside sponsors and volunteers now have a better idea of what is possible. Hope has returned to Sandtown.

Most of those who have seen the army of volunteers descend to transform vacant rowhouses in Sandtown this week have been impressed. Employees of Maryland National Bank and students of both Loyola and Johns Hopkins have worked shoulder-to-shoulder with building professionals. A number of Baltimore area companies are sponsoring houses; others have donated materials.

This is inspiring but, sadly enough, it is the easy part. The more difficult challenge is to rekindle the economic viability of inner-city Baltimore so that miracles like Sandtown won't be only oases in a desert.

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