Sometimes a single person can change an entire neighborhood for the better.
Baltimore can thank Robert Klepper, who died of cancer Saturday at Johns Hopkins Hospital, for his pivotal role in the Mount Vernon community.
In the early 1970s, the neighborhood around the Washington Monument was blighted with massage parlors, escort services, liquor stores and a very poor image of itself.
Bob Klepper believed it did not have to be that way.
Nor was it necessary to have big urban renewal schemes to rebuild the area. He did not like the idea of eliminating longtime tenants. Nor did he seek to make Mount Vernon into a yuppie enclave within the city.
Throughout the 1970s, Bob Klepper, with his head of copper-red hair, was a familiar sight at hearings of the liquor and zoning boards and the City Council, and housing court proceedings. He spoke with reason and in earnest. Unlike other community activists of that period, he never sought publicity for himself.
Part of the Klepper touch was his understanding of people. He had an old rowhouse at Calvert and Preston streets, where he lived and rented apartments. He knew the people in the neighborhood. He understood the community's strengths and weaknesses. He was never unrealistic in sizing up what Baltimore and his neighborhood were capable of.
Klepper was never the vitriolic activist. He worked with people, through the system, residence by residence, winning converts with good manners and a smile.
He could also get out the vote. Before he became active along Charles, St. Paul and Calvert streets, residents were not interested in their neighborhood. After his involvement, community meetings stopped being general gripe sessions. People started thinking about what they could accomplish on their own.
Some of this was Klepper's infectious neighborhood pride. He so loved his neighborhood. "After all, what Mount Vernon is to Baltimore, Washington is to the country. Look at the cultural institutions, the Lyric, Center Stage, the Pratt, the Waxter Center, the Maryland Historical Society and all the churches," he said in a 1975 interview.
This was Baltimore before Harborplace or the National Aquarium or Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The city's collective image of itself was a little less almighty, less focused on how the city would look to other cities and tourists.
Eva P. Higgins, who bought her home in the 900 block of St. Paul St. nearly 19 years ago, recalls Klepper's role in her purchase:
"Ours was not the first contract to buy the house. There was another one for something called the Club Confidential, a modeling-escort services place. A woman in the neighborhood caught an ad for it in the . . . Yellow Pages, even though the sale . . . had not gone through.
"Bob was very insistent in defeating that occupancy permit. He had a single-minded goal in preserving and uplifting the neighborhood. He did yeoman service."
Says Gary Lewis, president of the Odorite Co. in the neighborhood: "He had a compassion for everything he touched. He just cared. If the world had more people like him, it would be a much better place."
The Klepper years in the Mount Vernon neighborhood set the stage for larger accomplishments after he stepped aside from the exhausting community work. Pennsylvania Station was restored, the International House apartments on Mount Royal Avenue came into their own, the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall opened and the University of Baltimore expanded. Klepper himself had little to do with these major projects but he had plenty to do with creating a hospitable atmosphere for them.
By profession, he arranged loans for small and struggling businesses that had little experience but a reasonable chance of survival.
A little more than 15 years ago he called me, excited at the prospects of getting the financing together for Rita's Place, a basement lunchroom at Charles and 24th streets in Charles Village.
He was brimming with accomplishment. A small neighborhood business would be opening in a vacant, basement-level shop. The most complicated item on the menu was a scrambled egg. And, over the years, Rita's Place has flourished while other tonier restaurants have closed.
Klepper understood that neighborhoods do not always need places that sell the $8 omelet. Often, a $2 scrambled egg platter makes more sense.