A few weeks ago, some 200 volunteers gathered each morning under a tent at Gilmor and Presstman streets for 30 minutes of singing and inspirational messages. They then dispersed throughout Sandtown-Winchester to work on 20 vacant rowhouses Habitat for Humanity plans to rehabilitate this year in its effort to turn that West Baltimore neighborhood around.
Although they came from many religious backgrounds, all Sandtown volunteers had received Prophet Nehemiah's call, "Come, let us rebuild." As a result, 15 rowhouses were rehabilitated last year and dozens more are slated for repairs in years to come. A growing number of companies, religious institutions and foundations have joined in and are bankrolling the Habitat effort.
It is easy to be impressed by the drive that is transforming vacant, boarded-up properties into desirable, modern housing that is sold to local residents for just $30,000 a unit.
Certainly U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry G. Cisneros was impressed, when he declared, "It is volunteer efforts like this that are helping citizens to achieve the American Dream. This is America at its best."
Yet renovating abandoned houses or building new ones -- as was done in the recently completed 300-unit Nehemiah project nearby -- may be the easy part. A more difficult task is to return economic viability to neighborhoods like Sandtown.
To many outsiders, Sandtown may be a slum. But enough people retain fond memories to fill the Fifth Regiment Armory each summer for a giant reunion of current and former residents.
Among those attending are local heroes who have become top jurists, educators or artists. There is always a sizable contingent of one-time "A-rabs" as well, those vendors who used to take the colorfully decorated horses and wagons through city neighborhoods hawking fruits and vegetables. Most of them also came from Sandtown.
The Sandtown community's fortunes began to decline when smokestack industries started cutting their work force or local employers -- such as Schmidt's Bakery -- closed. "Once different job opportunities left, it left people without hope really," noted LaVerne Cooper, a local resident and Habitat official.
The site of the bakery is now full of newly constructed homes. That's wonderful. But only new job opportunities will assure that Sandtown's turnaround will be a lasting one.