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$34 million project offers glint of hope against decay


At the Middlesex Shopping Center, on Eastern Avenue in Essex, eastern Baltimore County, she stood there in the first little breeze of an early autumn morning and decided to put away all of the shyness of her life.

"Look here," she said proudly. She wore the pale apron of a grocery chain employee and pulled a little black pin with glittery lettering from a pocket at one hip. The pin was her grand corporate reward for 15 years of working here, she said.

"Nice," she was told.

"Got it for all my years of service," she said. She is 49 years old. After 15 years, she makes roughly $12 an hour and places the money on the kitchen table at the end of the week. This puts her, if not ahead of the game, at least ahead of several alternatives, which stretched behind her now in a line of store fronts, one immediately following another:

A thrift shop where people buy second-hand clothing.

A store for people to rent -- not buy; rent -- furniture, TV sets, various appliances, jewelry. "Oh, yeah," says a salesman inside. "Even jewelry gets rented."

A check-cashing store, mainly for people with no bank accounts, where you can convert your paycheck into dollars and then, if you wish, immediately throw some of it on a state lottery bet without having to move a muscle.

A vacant space, formerly a store.

A second vacant space.

A third vacant space.

A fourth vacant space.

A drug store.

A fifth vacant space, formerly a finance office.

"Fifteen years," the woman with the pin said, placing it back in her pocket. Fifteen years in one place sounded pretty good, knowing the speed of things today. People do such moving about now, by choice and sometimes not. Former generations of the gainfully employed at Sparrows Point routinely worked there for 25 years, 35 years, making good money and knowing such employment stability awaited their children, whose collective paychecks contributed to the stability of entire communities over the years. Now, in places like the Middlesex Shopping Center, the vacant storefronts tell another story.

"It's tough," said a middle-aged fellow named Chuck, who empties delivery trucks for several stores there. He was eating a quick lunch of a plain kaiser roll and a can of soda and said he hadn't heard anything about the good news for this part of Baltimore County. The story was all over the front of last Thursday's paper. The lady with the 15 years of grocery service hadn't heard about it either. They are not accustomed to thrilling news about their little piece of the county.

A team of developers last week announced plans to spend $34 million for a residential community and upscale restaurant marina on Middle River, in an effort being termed the first major commitment to revitalize the county's aging and edgy east side. Hopewell Pointe, they're calling it.

"Well, that's good," said Chuck the truck loader. "Hope, huh?"

"Hopewell," he was told. "Hopewell Pointe."

Chuck pointed across Eastern Avenue now, toward homes already in existence. He lives over there, he said, and was mugged about a year ago by four teen-agers who jumped him from behind, pushed his head to the ground and proceeded to take his wallet and his watch.

"Let's kill him," he remembers one of his assailants saying.

"No, don't kill me," he said.

"Then keep your head down till we're out of here," he was told.

"Now," he says, "I leave here and I walk three blocks out of my way to go home. You have to know where to go, and where you don't." He gestures toward a carryout store. Gets robbed all the time, he says. He motions toward another store.

"They've been robbed more times than I comb my hair," he says.

When C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger became county executive, he called this geography one of his priorities. The east side's lost some of its pride over the years. The apartment complexes built for World War II factory workers have decayed, partly by age and partly by circumstances. Several communities in the area have been hit hard by drugs and prostitution and various fallout crimes.

Most of the old steel jobs have disappeared, the jobs that people depended on over the decades of their lives, and the lives of their community, and never mind 15 years and a little pin to hold up in a shopping center.

Ruppersberger looks at this and sees images of parts of the city, where he grew up, when it was beginning to come undone more than 30 years ago. He wants to stop the blight while it's still possible.

A place like the planned Hopewell Pointe, making use of the county's natural waters, makes a statement: This piece of Baltimore County is not being abandoned, not when $34 million in private money is being invested, not when 173 miles of shoreline waits for those with imagination, not when there's talk of homes and boats and fishing.

When such talk is heard, it begins to echo across the dangerous apartment complexes haunted by drug dealers, and it carries hope to the places like undernourished Middlesex Shopping Center where it's thrilling to see human beings, and maybe even business establishments, stick around for 15 years.

Such talk of new development says: What happened in the city does not have to happen in the county just beyond it.

Pub Date: 9/29/96

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