Future looks a little brighter for grand old school


For the first time since Eastern High School closed in 1986, I passed by that mighty building and breathed a little easier.

The future of the building appears secure. The mighty Johns Hopkins University has expressed interest in developing the site where thousands of Baltimore women were educated.

This is not to say the Eastern property is automatically on the road to rebirth. But it sounds like a better idea than converting the site into another shopping center.

What a downer the helpless school building has become. It was a dispiriting sight to see its majestic windows boarded up with red plywood. Here was a grand building constructed with the best of 1930s masonry and New Deal money being allowed to sit unused and inviting an arsonist's torch.

Here was a choice location atop one of the hills of Baltimore, a setting that overlooks a green ridge to the north and the downtown skyline and harbor to the south. And yet the empty Eastern had come to be identified with waste and the incapacity of a city to make use of the resources bequeathed by earlier generations.

"I was very much brightened this morning when Hopkins stepped up to the plate and showed some community responsibility," said Dave Miller, whose Montpelier Street home is in the shadow of the old school. He's a former president of the Better Waverly Community Organization.

This part of Northeast Baltimore took two heavy hits in the last decades. Eastern closed in 1986. The Orioles last played at Memorial Stadium in 1991. Two behemoths -- both of which once regularly overflowed with humanity -- sitting empty couldn't help but get you down.

The arrival of the Canadian football team helped the stadium, but that was just a drop.

Yesterday afternoon, as I toured the neighborhoods of Waverly, Homestead, Ednor Gardens and Lakeside, it was easy to recognize the architectural character and graciousness of these communities. Even on a cold and damp March day, these are classic American streets of solid homes that show that residents take pride in their properties.

And yet, the damage to the psyche of the neighborhoods around Eastern has been appreciable. Stripped of their institutional anchors, the neighborhoods do not know which way to turn.

Hopkins' proposal for Eastern is important because it presumably lays to rest a developer's offer to convert the site into a shopping center.

The city could, of course, reject the university's proposal. It also is conceivable that Hopkins may want to build some sort of commercial operation on the Eastern property.

One stoic resident confided to me a few weeks ago that he almost expected Mayor Kurt Schmoke to let the neighborhood down when it came time to select a developer for Eastern.

"There is a loss of momentum and a loss of esprit de corps in these neighborhoods," he said.

This pessimistic home owner guessed that Eastern would fall into the hands of shopping center interests.

No wonder. There has been a depressed level of community expectation for much of the 1990s. Some of this has boiled over into civic outrage at the performance of the city's once acclaimed Department of Housing and Community Development and its Housing Authority in the current public housing repair controversy.

And there is a gloom over the city concerning the sobering statistics that the middle-class tax base is voting with its feet.

Of course, one large institution such as a Hopkins cannot single-handedly boost a sizable chunk of the city. It is up to the surrounding communities to do their share in stabilizing the area.

Yet many an institution in concert with solid, well-functioning neighborhoods has accomplished more for municipal health than highly publicized, $100 million political bailouts.

One good route might be for all the players to stay cool and work for neighborhood steadiness by fighting crime, bolstering the local schools and believing in Baltimore. Both the neighborhoods and Hopkins have a lot at stake here.

The Eastern site could be used as a catalyst to push this part of the city out of its funk.

And finally, the Waverly and Ednor Gardens communities could well enjoy the hefty dose of attention the project could bring.

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