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Incomparable? Well, almost

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For decades, any talk of downtown revitalization has always seemed to exclude Pigtown. But with just about every neighborhood near the downtown district in the throes of a renaissance, Pigtown may be next in line for some good times.

Although its official name is now Washington Village, the neighborhood still is known to nearly everyone as Pigtown. Its residents point out that the eclectic mix of working-class homes, historic landmarks, parks and industrial buildings is too centrally located to be ignored. Minutes from Interstate 95, Baltimore-Washington Parkway and the MARC trains, the area is ideal for commuters and employers looking to relocate downtown.

And yet, while Pigtown's northern region - mainly the Barre Circle area - has received some of the gilded treatment thanks to those rediscovering urban life, the heart of Pigtown has yet to draw the attention of homebuyers looking to take a chance on cheap housing.

The good news for Pigtown is there doesn't seem to be anywhere else for the downtown renaissance to go.

"Martin Luther King [Boulevard] has cut us off from what I like to call the 8-by-10 glossy of the Inner Harbor," said Gwenyth Padow of Tri-Churches, a Pigtown-based, nonprofit homeownership program. "We are the last neighborhood left, and all along we were the best located."

And also among the most engaging.

"A lot of old ladies walking around in their bedroom slippers" is how Matthew Vadney joyfully describes it. A Fairfax, Va., transplant, Vadney has been marveling at the Pigtown stoop culture for six years "The one thing about Pigtown, it's never boring."

Pigtown is bounded by Pratt Street to the north, Martin Luther King Boulevard to the east, Carey Street to the west and Wicomico Street to the south. It has more than its fair share of empty storefronts and dilapidated housing, but it also has blocks of stable streets with families who have lived there for generations.

The first signs of Pigtown's turnaround are occurring on Washington Boulevard, a one-time primetime shopping area. Jack Danna is the man orchestrating the infusion of new life into Washington Boulevard. Funded by Empowerment Baltimore, Danna is known as the main street manager for the boulevard.

New flower boxes have sprouted. On the way are $275,000 worth of streetscape improvements. A health clinic is planned. And there are hopes for a new coffee shop.

"Washington Boulevard must become more viable if we're ever going to see a more stable residential community," Danna said.

Major developments planned at both ends of Washington Boulevard include:

Southward along Washington Boulevard and extending east and west on Monroe Street, the first stage of Montgomery Park is being completed in the old Montgomery Ward Building to accommodate the first two tenants - the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Maryland Lottery office. When fully rented, this one-time white elephant will become the city's largest office building, with 1.3 million square feet, and its estimated work force of 3,000 to 5,000 could boost home sales in Pigtown.

To the east, the University of Maryland is making plans to build a research park in the 800 and 900 blocks of Baltimore St. that would draw biotech and pharmaceutical companies.

To the north is the future site of Camden Crossing, which is slated to feature 150 townhomes priced in the mid-$100,000s to fill an empty industrial lot on Scott and McHenry streets behind the B & O Museum.

Neighborhood boosters aren't content to wait for outsiders to come in and "save their neighborhood." They prefer to portray Pigtown as an untapped opportunity ripe for the kind of transformation that has turned many of Baltimore's other working-class communities into blends of young professionals and old-timers.

"It's more like Hampden than Federal Hill, that's for sure," said Rodney Carroll, who with his wife, Narda Carroll, converted an old furniture factory on Amity Street into studio space in 1987 and have since bought an adjacent warehouse. Both are sculptors. They have seen three of their studio tenants buy homes in the neighborhood.

"I don't know what to compare [Pigtown] to in the city," Rodney Carroll said. He compared it to Williamsburg, an old Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., recently staked out by artists looking for affordable housing. "This place is underdeveloped in that way."

Drawing upon the tradition of neighborhood activism, locals want to make sure that gentrification doesn't disrupt the very fabric that makes Pigtown one of the city's most racially diverse neighborhoods.

"We welcome newcomers, but it's not about gentrification," said Narda Carroll. "It's about keeping the people who are here and making this a better neighborhood and welcoming newcomers to help us do that."

From his new front porch, William Chambers has a distinct view of the tide of change swirling along Pigtown. He has seen newcomers settle in, and he has seen prices of homes already jump up. Technically, Chambers is a new resident of Carey Street, but, he has lived in the area all his life.

Known as the mayor of Pigtown, specifically of the seven square blocks that were known as Black Pigtown back when the neighborhood was segregated, Chambers would love to see Washington Boulevard revived. He would love to see newcomers put in work and return these old homes to their former glory but complete with all the modern conveniences that could be found in any comparable suburban townhouse. He only hopes that the locals will always have a chance to buy a home.

"If you don't own a house around here now, five years from now, the people I know won't be able to buy one," he said.

To counter future gentrification, Tri-Churches has purchased and rehabbed about 30 homes and resold them at below-market prices - recently about $45,000. Also, about 270 low- to moderate-income people have taken advantage of a home venture low-interest program that offers $5,000 toward closing costs for a house in Pigtown's Empowerment Zone.

Still, Padow realized that Pigtown's ability to draw middle- to upper-income residents is important to ensuring a balanced change. And in fact, Tri-Churches has restored four double-wide homes (two row homes with the walls knocked out in between) to help give the area drawing power.

"We're in a very peculiar position as a nonprofit," Padow said of Tri-Churches, which is geared to help residents with limited means become homeowners. "We want to see economic development and wonderful things shape this community, but with gentrification comes displacement quite often."

As is the case in many neighborhoods, Pigtown has to contend with absentee landlords and drug dealers. But the resilience of generations of families refusing to leave does lend an infectious bit of stability.

"Eighty percent of these homes are occupied by homeowners that have been here all of their lives, or their mother or father have been here," Chambers said. "And they are not going anywhere. A lot of them could move if they wanted to."

It's precisely this kind of stability that made Vadney feel comfortable enough six years ago to leave the suburban confines of Fairfax for a rowhouse on Washington Boulevard. For him, Pigtown's problems seem solvable.

Although it still has rough edges, "if you spend some time here and you get to know the characters, it can be a very comfortable place to live," Vadney said.

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