Neighborhood groups take initiative in city Impatient residents act to meet pressing needs


On the downtown stretch of Charles Street, where small businesses still draw bustling midafternoon crowds, bookstore owner Jimmy Rouse saw failure creeping in. Crime and grime were draining the life out of the five-block area that he counts as Baltimore's cultural and historical heart.

To turn it all around, Rouse didn't look to City Hall for help. Instead, he reactivated last year the long dormant Charles Street Association, hiring a retail planner, shopping for security cameras, crafting a marketing plan and raising nearly $60,000.

"The city was ignoring one of our greatest treasures in Baltimore," Rouse said. "Charles Street is an important street, and the city is never going to have a sense that it is moving ahead and developing if these neighborhoods are ignored."

Increasingly, neighborhoods and organizations throughout Baltimore are not even bothering to count on City Hall for help because, some say, the changing priorities of local government have left some neighborhoods to fend for themselves.

Consequently, some communities are quietly banding together to take care of some of the most basic needs.

From street cleaning, to trash pickup, to security, to home loans, the jobs are getting done by ambitious citizenry.

Guilford has its own security force, as does Mount Vernon. Lower Park Heights has its own trash collection. The downtown district is fixing sidewalks and curbs. Charles Village just took over a city recreation center. And there are now three special tax districts that collect money to improve their communities.

Many see it as their responsibility to help government, others see it as their burden in the absence of government.

Peter W. Culman, managing director of downtown's Center Stage, is part of a newly formed group to promote Mount Vernon as a tourist destination. It is an alliance of nine cultural institutions forged by a need to survive.

"We came into being because the city is not doing its job," he said. "One of the great ironies in our culture is the organization that comes into being because there is a broken contract elsewhere."

There is no question that the city is having a harder time fighting crime and grime. Though Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has pledged to make the two issues the top priorities of his administration, he has shrinking resources.

Revenue from property taxes has plummeted this year, as has money from other taxes. As budget time approaches, city finance officers are predicting a $20 million shortfall. City services, such as some recreation centers and libraries, are threatened with cuts.

In addition, people -- showing their dissatisfaction with modern city life -- have been moving out by the tens of thousands.

All this makes it hard for anxious community leaders to stand in line and wait for a handout from the city so their neighborhoods improve.

"It does no good to whine," Culman said. "If something is not right, go out and fix it."

That is the sentiment that is felt around the nation, said Roger Conner, executive director of the Center for the Community Interest, a Washington-based group that provides legal support for community organizations.

"I think we see it picking up steam all over the country," Conner said. "Part of it is impatience with government, but part of it is people recognizing that if you do it yourself, you can do it your own way and you will probably do it better."

Michael DiPietro, president of the Roland Park Roads and Maintenance Corp., said he doesn't feel as if the city is shirking its responsibilities when his group does some public improvements.

When the city fails to plow snow on some of the neighborhood streets, the group has hired someone to do it. Last year alone, the group picked up 4,200 cubic yards of sticks, leaves and bushes. The city agreed to pay the tipping fees when the organic material goes to a private mulching facility.

And the organization has all but adopted a median strip on University Parkway near the intersection of Cold Spring Road. The group landscapes, cuts the grass and plants flowers.

"We'll do as much as our budget allows us to do," DiPietro said.

Across town in Patterson Park, the East Fayette Street Community Development Corp. announced last December that it will provide up to nine years of free education at the St. Elizabeth School to children whose parents purchase a renovated rowhouse from the nonprofit company.

Funding for the program is provided by the Abell Foundation, which will donate up to $432,000 to East Fayette in nine years.

Few neighborhoods are as fortunate as the Better Waverly and nearby Waverly communities.

That neighborhood is about to get a jump start with city help. Since residents were moving out in droves, city officials last summer launched a tax incentive program that gives people who move in a financial break. Several city neighborhood associations had applied for the tax break.

There is some concern about the poorer communities that cannot afford to pay for improvements, said Robert B. Hill, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University.

Hill said that those neighborhoods have to do as much as they can with whatever resources they have available.

"Many of these groups can exert pressure on city government. They can call the mayor and other officials. They don't let the city off the hook," he said. "I think that outreach will get a positive response."

Schmoke has said that neighborhoods should realize that shrinking federal and state funding means that neighborhoods have to be in a partnership with government. Even as he campaigned for his third term as mayor two years ago, he told communities that they would have to do more on their own.

Roland Park leaders often cut deals with city officials.

At one of the community libraries, the neighborhood has agreed to take care of the groundskeeping. In return, the money the city would have spent goes into that library's funding, DiPietro said.

Rouse says he looks forward to sprucing up the 100 to 500 blocks of N. Charles St. with some city input.

Even though his association has hired a consultant to draft a master plan that aims at reinvigorating the street's businesses and cutting down on crime, there are big-ticket projects that are out of the association's reach.

And for Rouse, that means a helping hand from government.

"Some things like creating business deals are definitely going to need city input," he said.

Pub Date: 3/31/97

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