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Belair-Edison's efforts fail to stop flight to suburbs


In Belair-Edison, the rowhouses are neat and affordable, the ++ parks and alleys clean, the block watch captains always on duty and the slumlords held at bay.

Here is a neighborhood where natives pronounce Belair "Blair," a place so quintessentially Baltimore that filmmaker Barry Levinson shot scenes for "Avalon" and "Tin Men" on streets known for red brick rowhouses lined with handsome porches.

But even here, in the tidy Northeast Baltimore neighborhood of 14,000 people -- named one of Maryland's best by a state commission last year -- people are fleeing for the suburbs.

And as the U.S. Census Bureau predicts the city population will dip below 700,000 this year for the first time since World War I, this is one neighborhood fighting to stop the hemorrhage.

For more than a decade, Belair-Edison has recruited young families and singles and has competed aggressively with speculators trying to buy houses for cheap rental property.

The leaders of Belair-Edison, a proudly integrated neighborhood, continue to fight racial discrimination and panic selling by white homeowners. This year, an ad campaign, financed with a federal grant, will promote the advantages of living in racial harmony in Belair-Edison.

"If we can't salvage this neighborhood, we should close up shop," says Vincent Quayle, director of St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, which has been fighting to preserve the city's neighborhoods for 27 years.

Over the past nine years, St. Ambrose has purchased, repaired and sold more than 40 houses to new homeowners in the Belair-Edison neighborhood.

An additional 300 new homeowners -- armed with $9 million in loans -- have come to the community with the help of counseling from Belair-Edison Housing Services.

"I think it's probably the best housing value in the metropolitan area -- three bedrooms, brick rowhouses with plaster walls for $50,000 to $60,000 in magnificent shape," says Mr. Quayle. "People love the place."

But he and others fighting to retain Belair-Edison's residents face one major obstacle -- a public school system with a reputation for violence and low academic standards.

"The primary reason that people are leaving such a beautiful community is the schools -- the perception that the public school system does not deliver quality services," he says.

Race is often an unspoken motivation for white people leaving Belair-Edison -- and other city neighborhoods -- and even in deciding where their children will go to school. Over the past 40 years, that undercurrent has driven much of the suburban "white flight" and has led many parents to send their children to private schools.

Kathy Spath and her family moved from their Belair-Edison rowhouse last summer to a modern split-level in rural Chase, where her 6-year-old son and pet greyhound can run in a back yard near woods.

But she also moved, she says, so her son can attend a predominantly white public school.

Although Ms. Spath, who is white, says she liked living in an integrated city neighborhood, she was reluctant to send her son to Brehms Lane Elementary School, which is 82 percent black. "I didn't want him to be in a school where he'd be a minority," she says.

While Brehms Lane Elementary is predominantly black, the neighborhood that surrounds it is 60 percent white, according to the 1990 Census -- the most recent figures available.

"We are experiencing the browning of Brehms Lane," says Claudia Brown, Brehms Lane Elementary's first black principal.

Ms. Brown, who has been there for five years, says white families in the neighborhood are more inclined to send their children to private schools with other white children.

"Birds of a feather flock together," she says.

But, she adds, she makes a special effort to see that the white minority in her school is treated equally. "I insist all children are treated fairly. I have a zero-tolerance policy [for racial discrimination]."

Many white children from Belair-Edison attend the most popular private school in the neighborhood, the Shrine of the Little Flower, a Catholic school that goes to the eighth grade. The school is such a landmark that real estate agents often call the neighborhood "Little Flower."

Principal Lee Logue says the school is 85 percent white, although the black population is increasing. Of 30 new students this year, 28 are black.

Even in Mr. Logue's private school, where annual tuition costs $2,200, the impact of many white families moving to the suburbs is felt.

"This year we lost 50 students because everyone's moving," he says, noting that members of one family commute from their new home in Carroll County so their children can continue to attend his school.

"It used to be if you saw a for sale sign it was rare and it was up for only one day. Now you see every block has three or four houses for sale," he says. "Panic has something to do with it. If you live in a block with three or four for sale signs, you think, 'Maybe I should move, too.' "

But Mr. Logue doesn't understand the panic.

"New residents come in. They're fine people. . . . There are no crime problems at all. I'm up here late at night and I walk to work and I have no fear walking back at night."

Fears about violence, schools

For Pat Woodward, who is black, race is not the reason for leaving Baltimore.

But violence and low academic achievement are reasons enough for her husband, Alvin, and their children to plan a move next year to the suburbs, she says. The family also is looking for cleaner air for one son who is asthmatic.

A few years ago, Ms. Woodward pulled her oldest son out of the former Herring Run Middle School after he was assaulted twice.

His grades had declined. He wouldn't eat his lunch until after he got home for fear that someone would steal it in the cafeteria. And, she discovered, he'd wear his coat all day in class so no one would steal it.

She eventually enrolled her son, and her other two children, in a city elementary-middle school with a better reputation outside the Belair-Edison district -- only by pleading with the principal.

"I told her I would clean her car with a toothbrush just to let my baby in," she recalls.

Now, faced with the possibility of sending her daughter to Northern High School -- Ms. Woodward's alma mater -- she says she would rather move to the suburbs.

In a recent visit, she found her old high school had too many tough, streetwise students and too many clashes between students and teachers.

"It's not the same school I went to. I don't want her to be afraid," she says of her daughter.

In leaving Belair-Edison, Ms. Woodward says she will miss the "the comfortableness of going to your neighbors for a cup of sugar -- the warmthness. I will be giving up those things so my kids can have other things.

"It angers me that taxes are extremely high and our children are not allowed to gain benefits of those taxes."

School officials say they're working hard to establish contacts with the community, reduce violence and boost test scores.

Ms. Brown, the principal of Brehms Lane Elementary, is on the board of the Belair-Edison Community Association. And the association's president serves on the school's improvement team and the PTA.

Parents and neighborhood leaders say much of the city school system's poor reputation rests on a legacy of violence at the former Herring Run Middle School.

Belair-Edison children went there until two years ago, when they were transferred to Northeast Middle School -- a school with higher standardized test scores than the city average and fewer suspensions than the former Herring Run Middle.

The neighborhood's elementary schools -- Brehms Lane and Sinclair Lane -- receive praise from parents, although test scores in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program last year lagged behind the citywide average in several categories.

Principals at those schools say they are working to upgrade students' academic performance. At Sinclair Lane, Principal Ernestine Lewis tutors 25 third-graders in math each morning before school, to bring up test scores.

But the good news doesn't always filter out to the community.

At the same time that many people feel that the city is unsafe, they also feel that the school system is doing little to improve.

Luca Zacharias, president of the Belair-Edison Community Association, says, "I hate the perception because that's what's killing all of us -- the perception."

Moving in from the suburbs

David Sann's view of Baltimore changed when he moved to Belair-Edison from suburban Towson three years ago.

After attending a party in the neighborhood, Mr. Sann and his wife, Debbie Straka, began to look at houses there almost on a lark. They bought the first one they saw.

They turned down a new $110,000 White Marsh townhouse that they could barely afford. Instead, they bought a $52,000 brick rowhouse with mahogany inlays in its hardwood floors, and real plaster walls.

Mr. Sann, who lives near Herring Run Park, says many friends questioned his sanity. But he believes moving into the city was one of the best decisions he has ever made.

"I don't want to live in a neighborhood where everyone looks like me," says the 29-year-old insurance salesman, who already has become board president of Belair-Edison Housing Services. "I want to live in a neighborhood with young, old, married, single, black and white. And I don't like suburban sprawl."

Kelley Ray, like Mr. Sann, moved to Belair-Edison from the suburbs six years ago.

It reminds her of Hillendale, the rowhouse community where she grew up in Baltimore County.

She paid $52,000 for a rowhouse with a finished basement and central air conditioning.

"I had a friend or two who didn't like my neighborhood because they were not comfortable with an integrated neighborhood," says Ms. Ray, who is white.

"But they're not my friends anymore."

Since moving into the city, Ms. Ray has become one of Belair-Edison's biggest boosters. She's even decided to run for a City Council seat in the 1st District this year.

"Granted, the neighborhood is not the same as it was 10 or 20 years ago, but as far as city neighborhoods go, Belair-Edison has adapted and dealt with the changing times better than a lot of communities," she says.

'Fast cash' worries

"We pay cash for houses. Fast Cash," blared the oversized sign near the corner of Erdman Avenue and Edison Highway.

For years, residents viewed the sign as a symbol of greed from a housing speculator trying to scare whites into selling their homes cheaply. Community leaders tried in vain to get the sign removed.

Then last week, Cavalier Realty owner Gary Waicker decided to remove it, after a Sun reporter called.

"I'm not a scoundrel," he said just before he took the sign down.

The next morning the community declared victory.

"It was a symbol of the magnitude of the problems we face," says Tracy Durkin, director of Belair-Edison Housing Services.

"Having it gone is a symbol of change."

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