"Joy to the World!" sang the St. Veronica's Church choir, standing in front of the new Dunkin' Donuts. "Joy to Cherry Hill!" yelled a happy voice from deep inside the new dry cleaner and laundry.
More than 100 Cherry Hill residents sang Christmas carols and officially reopened a now-gleaming shopping center that two years ago had been a community eyesore, its parking lot an open-air drug market.
Yesterday, the Cherry Hill Town Center -- with a new name, new lighting, new library, new supermarket, and new stores from a $5.5 million renovation -- was hailed as the centerpiece of a transformation of the mostly poor, geographically isolated South Baltimore neighborhood.
A block north of the shopping center is a new high school. Farther south are two vacant lots where next year, the city housing commissioner promises, a housing complex for seniors and homes for owner-occupants will be built.
Baltimore police, led by Cherry Hill native Maj. Elmer Dennis, have broken up one of the neighborhood's notorious gangs, the Veronica Avenue Boys, and put pressure on another.
Together, the initiatives constitute one of the most comprehensive, ambitious -- and risky -- redevelopment efforts in the state. Community leaders, who helped plan the changes four years ago through a group called Cherry Hill 2000, believe the new institutions can help stabilize the lives of the neighborhood's poor residents while encouraging more black, middle-class professionals to make their homes in Cherry Hill.
"This makes me feel safer here," said Monica Wooden, 13, looking at a shoe store and a Christmas tree on the center's roof. "I live in a community where I can own a home, go to good schools, or shop in the town center."
The center's opening adds Cherry Hill to the list of American urban neighborhoods, from south Los Angeles to Brooklyn, N.Y., that have staked their hopes for revival on a shopping center.
The notion is that shopping centers, if managed well, keep residents' money in the neighborhood, attract homeowners, employ young people from surrounding areas and provide inspiration and opportunity for potential entrepreneurs.
But few projects face higher hurdles than Cherry Hill's. The shopping center was purchased and renovated not by a for-profit company, but by Catholic Charities, which never before had undertaken a commercial retail project.
Many of the merchants acknowledge concerns about whether Cherry Hill, with 11,000 people, can sustain a 16-store shopping center that includes a new Foot Stop, Subway sandwich franchise, and Cherry Laundry and Dry Cleaners.
There are signs of progress. Super Pride Market, which took over the center's moribund supermarket in January 1997, reports a 20 percent increase in business in the two months since the store completed a $2 million expansion.
"It's definitely a risk," said Patrice Cromwell, a Catholic Charities official, "but this is a community that deserves what other neighborhoods in the city have."
Pub Date: 12/06/98