I WAS BORN Feb. 3, 1923 at 3608 Cottage Avenue, a small street that drops off (with hardly anybody noticing it) the 3400 block of Park Heights Avenue.
Here on quiet streets with more greenery than one might expect, I grew up. I played ball in the back lots (I was good at wire ball; the objective was to throw a tennis ball 40 feet straight up and hit the telephone wire. I played "prisoner games" in the alleys, walked to elementary school two blocks away at P.S. 59 and, in the row house tradition of my times, was raised by both family and neighbors.
But for time off for three years in the Navy and as many away at college, I lived in that house until I got married in 1952. In the years that have gone by since, I have looked back on those times as seamless, tranquil, unremarkable -- all from a distance. But last week, at the invitation of the St. Ambrose Outreach Center, I returned to walk those streets again.
It has to be said that time has not been kind to Cottage Avenue (in what is now known as Southern Park Heights but in my day was Lower Park Heights). As the middle class moved out to the suburbs, homes that had been owned and well kept became rental properties and distressed.
The poor -- mostly jobless and with few prospects -- moved in. So did drugs, and the social pathologies that defined such neighborhoods -- high school drop-outs, teen-age parenting, crime, joblessness, illiteracy. Cottage Avenue's few blocks morphed into a war zone that would hold the distinction of having one of the highest murder rates in the city. Sympathetic friends explained and consoled: Changing neighborhoods. It's an old story.
But this story is taking an interesting turn.
Cottage Avenue may be coming back. No, not back for people like me whose expectations of neighborhood life are rooted in the 1930s and 1940s, but for a whole generation who will be given the opportunity to own a new home on a new Cottage Avenue.
Led by Sister Charmaine Krohe, the St. Ambrose Outreach Center, in cooperation with the St. Vincent DePaul Society, has taken on the Herculean task of renovating 12 (for starters) houses on Cottage Avenue and nearby Ulman Avenue.
The purpose is to help families make the transition from emergency housing to transitional housing to permanent housing and to what the social agencies call "self-sufficiency." Translation: stay in school, get a job, raise a family, become a productive member of society.
The project includes a new playground, complete with picnic tables and state-of-the-art play equipment and professionally run recreation and education programs. Official ceremonies kicking off the project will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Cottage and Park Heights avenues.
New houses for old, greenery for concrete, homes for the homeless, education for the uneducated, jobs for the jobless. Is it all a dream? No, it is happening.
If Cottage Avenue has been the symbol of the city's despair, it is now a symbol of its hope. I plan to go back there again, and while I'm there, find me a tennis ball and see if I can still hit that telephone wire from 40 feet below -- straight up.
Gilbert Sandler writes from Baltimore. his third book, "Jewish Baltimore; A Family Album," is being published by the Johns Hopkins Press this fall.
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