The former White Tower hamburger shop with the familiar white enamel exterior looked just the way Rodney Barnes remembered it.
Inside, the original orange-topped chrome stools lined up at the Formica counter. An old sign outside advertised pancakes, eggs and coffee. But the griddle at the 1940s-style diner had been cold for nearly a year, since the last White Tower in Baltimore closed.
On Friday, coffee brewed in the stainless steel urns once again. Barnes, 30, has transformed the Erdman Avenue eatery of his childhood into one where his own children help out. At Jammers, he's serving hoagies, Philadelphia-style, and steamed crabs, Baltimore-style.
For Barnes, it's more than nostalgia. He is among a handful of new merchants in Northeast Baltimore's Belair-Edison neighborhood betting on the reversal of a decades-long trend that has driven customers from city sidewalks to suburban strips and malls and left local businesses languishing.
To Barnes, who used to run a hoagie shop in Virginia, the business also represents a chance to give something back to Belair-Edison. The neighborhood of 6,500 rowhouses gave him memories, of Boy Scouts, paper routes and role models, and a place to come back to for family and old schoolmates.
"I've been looking for a good location for a long time," Barnes said. "This building's been around forever. It's always been a restaurant, and it did well. We went after it."
Merchants and others hoping to revitalize the five-block-by-two-block district of 100 businesses along Belair Road and Erdman Avenue see the White Tower's reincarnation as a sign of things to come.
Since January, several businesses have opened or made plans to open, among them a bakery, an insurance agency, a lounge and cafe, a grocery and carryout and a beauty supply store. Last year, a Food Depot grocery opened on Belair Road, and Rite Aid expanded.
Several banks, including Harbor Bank and Atlantic Federal, as well as La Fontaine Bleu Catering are among older businesses that provide stability.
"People are recognizing there is a lot of money to be spent in this neighborhood," said Daniel Klocke, business development coordinator for Belair-Edison Housing Service Inc. The neighborhood has a median household income of $33,000.
But before January, a neighborhood that once had at least three bakeries had "thousands of homes and no bakery, no place to buy fresh bread," said George Hatzigeorgalis, a former owner of bakeries in Dundalk and Harford County. At the end of January, he opened George's Bakery in the 3500 block of Belair Road. He lives above the shop.
"Who knows? It might go back to the good old days of mom-and-pop shops," said Hatzigeorgalis, who looked for a site after returning to Baltimore from living in his native Greece for a few years. "These last two months make me believe I will be successful," he said. "I see these businesses coming up again. The neighborhood is going to wake up again over here, and that's why I've invested my money."
The new business openings come at a time when the efforts of the Belair-Edison housing group, city officials and local merchants have begun to converge. And the openings come less than a year after the city beefed up a commercial revitalization program known as the Business Assistance Group, hoping to turn 60 city business districts into shopping hubs.
At the Belair-Edison Housing Service, Klocke recently came on board to handle business development. He is helping merchants organize the area's first merchants association. He's also coordinating efforts between business owners and city officials, who are hiring contractors to make improvements such as increasing lighting, installing benches, planting trees, replacing signs and repainting crosswalks, through $150,000 in city grants and general obligation bonds.
More recently, Klocke has turned his attention to recruiting businesses. The neighborhood, with available space ranging from 700 square feet to 4,000 square feet, could use a shoe store, video store, family restaurant, private mailing service and more professionals, such as accountants. He's also trying to help businesses market to residents.
"A lot of folks tend to go to the huge malls and specialty shops in the suburbs," Klocke said. "They don't realize [they have] access to stores in the neighborhood."
The city has been wrestling with what has long been a broader urban problem as well.
Since last year, LeRoy Adams Jr., head of the Business Assistance Group, and four field coordinators have been working on similar issues in many of the city's business districts. The field coordinators work out of nine neighborhood service centers, situated in each police district, where city workers specializing in human services, health, police, public works, housing and other areas help residents solve problems.
Business specialists at the centers work on assessing needs of the district, creating redevelopment plans, helping to implement those plans, filling vacancies and recruiting business.
Efforts have resulted in better lighting in Highlandtown, where field coordinators are trying to reduce high vacancy rates, and the renovation of Avenue Market, the former Lafayette Market in West Baltimore's economically distressed Upton community.
Hard work ahead
"It all boils down to revitalizing the business districts and repositioning them to better serve their customer base," Adams said. "The structure of the districts has changed over the years. Where you had local retail within the neighborhood business district, a lot of that local retail is gone. One of the things to do is to figure out how to bring it back, which is tough."
He and others acknowledge they have a long way to go. Vacancy rates remain high -- typically 20 percent to 25 percent -- attracting crime and grime. Restless youngsters huddle outside businesses.
And loitering leads to problems, such as an incident in Belair-Edison when Barnes discovered candy stolen from Jammers three days before Friday's opening.
But he had no second thoughts about returning to his old neighborhood, where he had signed a five-year lease, replaced windows and the electrical system and overhauled equipment.
Instead, the theft left him more convinced he should stay and get to know and guide children as adults had done for him.
"Back then, adults would take kids under their wing," said Barnes, the father of eight, some of whom will work part time with their father. "One of the things I want to get back into and get the community into, I want to give it back."
Pub Date: 4/07/97