After years spent building new communities in Owings Mills and White Marsh, Baltimore County is turning inward, in a multimillion-dollar suburban renewal targeting aging Beltway neighborhoods.
The effort is starting in Essex and Middle River, where residents once proudly produced bombers and ships to fight fascism, but now battle unemployment and poverty.
In two-story brick apartment complexes that once housed Rosie the Riveter, single mothers struggle to raise children. An aircraft factory that supported 50,000 workers in neighborhoods called Victory Villa and Aero Acres today has barely 1,000 employees.
County officials recently approved a plan to spend nearly $6 million on streets, alleys and other rebuilding projects in older neighborhoods. The community conservation program also is designed to unite residents, government officials and private agencies to train workers, create jobs, improve housing and fight crime.
"If the battle is lost in the older neighborhoods, then Baltimore County is lost," said Jack Barnhart, chairman of the Essex-Middle River Community Conservation effort.
Other targeted areas are Lansdowne, Baltimore Highlands and Halethorpe in the southwest; Woodlawn and Randallstown in the west; and the central neighborhood of Hillendale.
But the fight began last year on the county's east side. "We felt like the problems here were the most serious and we owed it to the people to do something," said Mary Emerick, the Community Conservation coordinator for the area.
Essex and Middle River were havens for Baltimore's working-class families who wanted to escape the city's heat and stench at the turn of the century. The local economy received a boost in 1929, when the Glenn L. Martin Co. came to Middle River to build airplanes. By 1940, aircraft orders were pouring in as rumors of war spread.
That was the year William Bell moved from upstate New York to become an aviation inspector at Martin. He lived in apartments and rooming houses during the war, and in the early 1950s, he and his wife spent $6,500 for a two-bedroom cottage in Aero Acres, a community Martin had built for its workers.
Although there were times over the years that Mr. Bell thought about leaving, he stayed. "It was handy to my job," he said simply.
They built an addition to their home, raised two children and retired. Many neighbors stayed, too. Today Mr. Bell describes Aero Acres -- which has streets named Fuselage Avenue and Propeller Drive -- as a place where people keep up their houses and cut the grass.
But he worries about Middle River's crime, drugs and poverty, and fears his community isn't changing for the better.
Although many residents fret about the influx of poor people from Baltimore, the communities' problems can be traced to the area's rapid expansion during World War II.
Most workers depended on a few big manufacturers, including Martin, Bethlehem Steel and General Motors -- companies that paid good wages. But when the nation's economy changed, those workers began to lose their jobs, and new industries have not filled the gap.
In a county with a median household income of $38,800, the median income is $27,486 in Essex and $30,747 in Middle River.
Along with poverty have come other ills: increases in child abuse, alcoholism, drug use and crime. Educating children is also tough -- in three of the area's elementary schools, 40 percent of the students transfer during the school year.
Some of the large apartment complexes built for workers in the 1940s have become the run-down, subsidized housing that area residents bemoan.
And, at times, the county government has been almost as negligent. Alleys are practically impassable, roads are filled with potholes, and water and sewer lines are deteriorating. Over the years, the county and city have sent their most unpleasant projects to the east side: garbage dumps, a sewage treatment plant, rubble fills.
"What's the in thing to do? It's not to move to Essex, unfortunately," said Edward Ziegenfuss, executive director of the Essex-Middle River Chamber of Commerce.
The goal of the county's community conservation project is to make such beleaguered urban areas desirable again. Dozens of volunteers, who began meeting in April, expect to start recommending solutions at the end of this month.
Those involved in the effort say change is possible.
In the early 1980s, the county spruced up Eastern Avenue's business district, planting trees and laying bricks. The effort paid off: Where 70 percent of the storefronts once were empty, the vacancy rate has dropped to about 30 percent.
The once-decaying Kingsley Park Apartments have been remodeled, with shrubbery planted and a community association formed to fight crime. Nearby, in the Villages of Tall Trees apartments, one building is being turned into a community center to provide services to residents and a base for police patrols.
Along the waterfront, Essex and Middle River are showing the vTC first signs of becoming pricey areas. Summer cottages are being torn down and replaced with $500,000 houses. Luxury townhouses are being built off Turkey Point Road. And Fairwinds, an upscale community, is under construction in Middle River.
"The streets look better now than when I grew up," said Paul Michael Blitz, 32, a lifelong resident of Essex and the archivist for the Heritage Society of Essex-Middle River.
The community conservation program also is designed to attract more new residents -- such as Shawn McElfish. The county police officer, who grew up in Rosedale and White Marsh, saw a good bit of the nation traveling as a minor league baseball player. But when it was time to settle down, he wanted to live in Essex.
"The people aren't fake," said Mr. McElfish, who recently bought a $62,000 brick rowhouse. "What you see is what you get."
He didn't think he could afford to buy a home, but a deferred low-interest loan from the county helped him pay the settlement costs. That program, started in October, is designed to help first-time homebuyers settle in the county's older communities.
Residents, concerned about the 31 apartment complexes in the Essex and Middle River area, hope to encourage construction of more single-family homes by revising zoning. They're also trying to increase the availability of day care and improve education and transportation.
Ultimately, though, residents know that much of their success depends upon their ability to attract jobs to the area.
Essex and Middle River have much to offer employers, including affordable property, available workers and easy access to the railroad, a state airport and the water, Mr. Ziegenfuss said.
Chamber President William Bafitis said employers need encouragement from Baltimore County. Even though the county has streamlined its permit process, more can be done to reduce the bureaucracy and give employers incentives to move to older communities.
While Baltimore's efforts to revitalize neighborhoods and attract businesses have met only limited success, residents in Essex and Middle River are convinced that they are taking action in time to save their communities. "This is a fantastic opportunity to create our own destiny," said community activist Ellen Jackson. "If we don't do it now, shame on us."