Fifty-five years ago, when Annapolis' Clay Street neighborhood was vibrant and prosperous, the Rev. Leroy Bowman planted himself in the heart of it all to offer spiritual guidance through First Baptist Church.
As years went by and the mostly black community fell prey to poverty and rising crime, the respected minister's role stretched beyond the pulpit to defend the community from outside forces -- the Ku Klux Klan, City Hall and the state of Maryland.
Now, some residents are looking to the 88-year-old pastor to play pivotal role in a divisive battle over HOPE VI -- the Annapolis Housing Authority's multimillion-dollar proposal to raze and renovate two public housing complexes on Clay Street.
"What the community needs is someone who is not working toward individual gratification or glory," said Gerald Stansbury, president of the Anne Arundel County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "People don't understand what's going on with HOPE VI, and they deserve to hear it from someone they trust."
Bowman dismisses such talk. He says he doesn't wield as much pow- er as folks seem to think he does, and he isn't convinced that HOPE VI is the monstrosity some say it is, or the last best hope for the neighborhood that others claim.
"I need to find out more because I know [the community] is waiting to hear from me," he said. "They know they don't have to go the way I go, but they know I won't lead them astray, either."
He and others in the neighborhood on the western edge of the city's downtown Historic District were led astray once before, and they'll never forget it.
Bowman, who grew up in Washington, moved to Annapolis with his wife in 1943 to minister to the congregation of First Baptist Church on Washington Street, about a half-block from Clay Street.
He became so respected that in the 1950s, then-Mayor Roscoe Rowe named him to the city's Housing Authority Board in an effort to desegregate the city's public housing complexes.
In the 1970s, Bowman and Alderman Norwood T. Brown, who represented the Clay Street neighborhood, were sent to Norfolk, Va., to see urban renewal at work.
They came back convinced that its promise of better housing was good for Clay Street.
It wasn't until urban renewal's completion that they thought differently.
Dozens of black-owned businesses were destroyed and families that had lived on Clay Street for generations were dispersed to projects on the opposite edge of the city. In their places were government buildings and a parking garage.
"They made a lot of promises that were not kept," said Bowman, a tall, wiry man with gray hair.
That is why he, like others, is leery of HOPE VI, despite its promise of $30 million worth of new homes, and educational and job-training opportunities.
"I need to know this is a bona fide, trustworthy project for development," Bowman said as he sat in his home in Parole. "I don't live on Clay Street anymore, but my church is there and they are my family. I have to be sure about everything before I advocate any program, because things didn't turn out quite like we thought it would last time."
Clay Street may not have been perfect, Bowman conceded, "but it was ours."
Willing to listen
In some ways, the same could be said of the community today. Despite the crime, the dilapidated buildings and the poverty -- more than half its residents live below the poverty level -- Clay Street is the last black enclave in the city's downtown area.
That is why many, including Bowman, don't trust what HOPE VI has to offer.
But the minister also says he is willing to listen to the proposal. Where else will the community get $30 million, he wonders?
But while most everyone in the community accords Bowman the respect due a longtime leader, many are unsure how strong an influence he can be at 88 years of age.
"He is a dynamic leader," said Carl O. Snowden, a former city alderman who has been involved in HOPE VI.
"I think what needs to happen is there needs to be some leader- ship from the Housing Authority, the mayor's office and the community. That hasn't happened yet. He would be helpful, but I think it would take younger leadership than Rev. Bowman."
Others believe the minister still has much to offer.
"I would listen to Rev. Bowman," said Dora Brown, 43, an Obery Court resident who circulated a petition to oppose HOPE VI.
"He's my children's pastor and I trust him," Brown said. "I'd let him sit down and explain to us if this project would work. I'd at least listen to him. But whatever his opinion, I still make my own decisions in the end."
Bowman's influence may be enough to make a difference, according to Marie Howland, director of the University of Maryland's urban studies and planning department at College Park.
"Very often it boils down to a charismatic leader or two who can remember and articulate their views to draw the community behind them," Howland said.
"If you had someone who was respected and more forgiving of urban renewal and the government in general, they might be able to pull the community together to support something like HOPE VI.
"I think it's a sad commentary on how hard it is to re-establish trust in government," Howland added.
Pub Date: 6/07/98