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It's simple and direct, the way Sarah Silkworth tries to keep the yards and alleys around her Irvington home orderly.

Armed with a notebook and pen, she walks four blocks of streets and alleys, noting trash, whether the grass is cut and shrubbery trimmed.

Usually, she doesn't wait for the city to act. Instead, she calls offending property owners and requests immediate action.

"Oh, sometimes you have people who get mad, who don't want to clean up, but they usually go ahead and do it," said Silkworth, 69.

"I just tell them we're trying to straighten out our neighborhood so it will be decent for children to grow up in."

For 10 years, Silkworth's biweekly inspections, excluding winter, have been part of a communitywide effort that has helped the West Baltimore neighborhood stem urban blight, say residents and city officials.

The result is a striking difference in some Irvington streets, where dilapidated houses have been rehabilitated and trash-strewn alleys cleaned up.

By the 1970s, Irvington was suffering ills common to many city neighborhoods.

Homeowners were fleeing, selling out to investors, and renters were moving in.

Now the community is a textbook example of what city neighborhoods need to do to turn themselves around, city officials say.

The figures speak for themselves: The city's population dropped by 50,000 from 1980 to 1990, but Irvington's population increased 6 percent during that period to 4,283, according to Census data.

The number of owner-occupied houses there went up 38 percent to 841, while the number of renter-occupied units decreased by less than 2 percent to 797.

The average market value of homes there is $51,600.

For the first quarter of this year, violent crime was down 17 percent in Irvington compared with the same period a year ago, police say.

"They have turned themselves around. Irvington has stopped what could have been a critical slide" into urban decay, said City Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, who frequently touts Irvington's success to other neighborhood groups.

At the heart of the renaissance are some local nonprofit organizations, a neighborhood development group and residents who refuse to let a two-block open-air drug market spread beyond the business district, said Michael Sarbanes, an Irvington resident and executive director of the governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention.

"There are enough people who want a safe place to raise their kids who won't put up with the drug dealing," Sarbanes said.

"We still have not reached the tipping point where the drug dealers feel uncomfortable and the law-abiding people feel comfortable [on the business strip], but this is a very winnable fight."

The turning point in Irvington's revival came when Neighborhood Housing Services Inc. (NHS), a private, nonprofit loan and counseling group, came to the neighborhood's rescue in 1986, say Henson and residents.

It was then that the neighborhood association began asking residents such as Silkworth to make notes about trash, drug dealing and other nuisances and to report them to community organizers or a foot-patrol officer assigned to the neighborhood.

NHS, part of the Neighborworks Network with offices in 160 cities, helps neighborhoods on the brink -- those it can keep from teetering over the edge, said Michael Braswell, NHS executive director.

The organization becomes involved only in communities where it has been invited, he said.

NHS also has offices in Patterson Park, Coppin Heights and Govans and, recently, Hillendale -- its first venture in Baltimore County.

Irvington was a classic case of a neighborhood in trouble: Investors were buying up homes, crime was rising and dozens of apparent drug dealers began milling around the business strip, deterring shoppers, residents say.

NHS and residents reached a consensus about major housing projects for the area and then asked the city and state for help.

NHS began offering low-interest purchase and rehabilitation loans, plus homeowner counseling, to stabilize the neighborhood.

In Irvington, NHS has provided $3.8 million in loans for 270 families to purchase or renovate houses.

The city and state provided $500,000 in loans, and private lenders contributed $8.5 million in loans for those NHS deals.

Working with the neighborhood's plan, the city condemned some properties on the business strip and built Irvington Place, a senior citizens housing development, with federal funds.

NHS handled leasing duties for the development.

Private developers and individual home owners have renovated dozens of houses, something that happened as a result of NHS activities, Braswell said.

"Irvington is perceived as being stable because the drug area is confined, for the most part, to Frederick Avenue. And you can get a very nice home for $60,000 to $70,000," said Arnold Politzer, president of Lucky Realty Homes Inc., a private business that has renovated 30 homes in Irvington over the past two years.

And more housing is coming.

The $3 million, 37-unit Monastery Gardens townhouse development is under construction at Old Frederick Road and Loudon Avenue, a project of the Mutual Housing Association of Baltimore Inc.

About 11 of the units will go to public housing residents.

Many Irvington residents are extremely proud of their neighborhood.

"I've got the best neighbors anybody could want," said Will Backstrom, a resident of Marydell Road -- a line of neat brownstone rowhouses just west of Mount St. Joseph High School and south of Frederick Avenue.

But there's still work to be done.

Silkworth, a 34-year Irvington resident, had a checkered report on the rear yards in the 300 and 400 blocks of Yale Ave.

A few needed to be cleaned, but, generally, there's a marked improvement from several years ago, she said.

"This whole yard here was filled with wood," she said, pointing to one.

"It was so bad that we were getting snakes out of it."

The resident cleared the yard after Silkworth called, she said.

There was one liquor bottle in the alley.

"I haven't seen many of these lately," said Silkworth, tossing the empty half-pint vodka bottle into the trash.

"It has the potential of becoming one of the finest neighborhoods," said Charles Reiter, president of 124-year-old Mount St. Joseph High School.

Reiter, a member of the NHS of Irvington's neighborhood advisory board, pledged to involve the school in improving the neighborhood when he became president three years ago: "I've made it a priority."

Last weekend, members of the Mount St. Joe community joined with area residents to plant 800 saplings for a tree nursery on school property.

When more mature, the trees will be planted in the neighborhood.

Some of Mount St. Joe's 1,000 students volunteer at a local soup kitchen and plan to paint it this summer.

Organizing neighborhood youth into positive activities is a priority, too.

Mount St. Joe provides scholarships for young boys to attend its summer sports camp.

Residents coach various athletic leagues at a nearby recreation center and show movies outdoors on a vacant lot in the summertime.

This summer, there are plans for a youth corps program, where youths would be paid to work cleaning and landscaping public sites, Sarbanes said.

Residents and city officials say that with the housing stock improved, they will turn their attention to the troubled Frederick Avenue business strip, which in recent years lost its anchors: a Rite-Aid drugstore, an Exxon station and the Irvington Federal Savings Bank.

"There are too many bars, too many beauty shops and a store-front church that's a revolving door.

"Those are not signs of a healthy commercial area," said Brenda Ready, who recently retired as executive director of NHS of Irvington and is credited as the key architect behind the turnaround.

On a recent weekday afternoon, about a dozen young men milled around a local carryout on Frederick Avenue, at times blocking the sidewalk.

Residents have fenced off the former Rite-Aide parking lot to deter loitering.

"The long-term challenge is to revive the business strip because it detracts from the quality of the houses," said Braswell.

Meanwhile, there are a number of new residents who think it has promise, including Sarbanes, who grew up in the Guilford area and bought a house on a leafy street near Maiden Choice Run in Irvington 2 1/2 years ago after marrying Jill Wrigley.

"It's a neighborhood that's determined to make diversity work," Sarbanes said.

The son of U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes said he was committed to living in the city, preferably in a neighborhood where he could work to help turn it around.

"It's where I live, where I'm planning to raise a family," he said.

Pub Date: 4/24/97

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