Johnston Square, Oldtown and Oliver are three East Baltimore neighborhoods notorious for vacant houses, drug deals, shootings and their proximity to the city's jail and the state's penitentiary.
They are less known for scattered pockets of neatly kept new townhouses, built with government subsidies and owned or rented by community residents at prices they can afford.
Yesterday, the Schmoke administration launched a project aimed at chipping away at the communities' bad image -- a $14 million effort to build or renovate 150 homes for sale.
The city and two private groups, the Enterprise Foundation and the Housing Assistance Corp., launched the project to build 68 new houses and to renovate 82 others -- called Nehemiah III.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who is running for re-election this fall, said the project will transform parts of the neighborhoods "where we have seen vacant and abandoned houses."
After speeches from several other politicians, government officials and community leaders, a crowd of about 75 watched a crane chop a piece from a vacant building at Chase and Aisquith streets to make way for the new homes.
The Nehemiah III project is the third joint venture between city government and the Enterprise Foundation in a concentrated attempt to eliminate pockets of poverty by creating blocks of new homes for sale.
The first, in Sandtown-Winchester and Penn-North in West Baltimore, resulted in 300 new homes. An additional 28 houses were built in Cherry Hill in South Baltimore as part of Nehemiah II.
All the houses were sold without advertising in the newspaper.
The houses to be built in East Baltimore -- with city, state and federal funds -- each will cost $55,050 and will have subsidized mortgages so that low-income people can afford them.
Lenora Fortune, 30, hopes to be one of the first homebuyers and already has her name on a list of prospective buyers. She attended yesterday's ceremony to get a glimpse of what she hopes will be her new neighborhood.
She rents a house in West Baltimore for $300 a month. For another $25 to $50 a month, she could own a house.
"It'll give me a chance to own my own home and it's pretty affordable," said Ms. Fortune, a single mother of two who works as a cashier-clerk at the city's housing authority.
"It will be brand new, like a fresh start. And my house will be paid for before I retire," she said.