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Relevant election question: Is your area better off now?

IS YOUR neighborhood better off than it was four years ago?

It's a pertinent question for city voters to ask in advance of Tuesday's primary election.

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In my case, the answer is yes.

To be sure, my neighborhood, at the nexus of Hampden, Roland Park and Wyman Park in North Baltimore, never had the problems of crime, trash and vacant housing that troubled too many other city communities.

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While uncertainty still surrounds the future of the old Northern District police station, the reopening of the movie theaters in the Rotunda shopping center and the continued strength of Hampden's 36th Street commercial corridor are definite pluses. And housing prices are booming on the streets along the park, attracting new homeowners, including several of my colleagues here at The Sun.

The responses I got from a handful of community leaders around the city to whom I posed the question covered a wide spectrum - perhaps reflecting the city's uneven progress and unfinished business.

For my admittedly informal survey, I deliberately avoided leaders of neighborhoods where large projects were planned or under way, such as Stadium Place in Waverly or the biotech park north of the Johns Hopkins medical complex on the east side, in an attempt to get a sense of how people are feeling about day-to-day urban life.

Cynthia Griffin, head of the West Federal Hill Residents & Homeowners Association in South Baltimore, was one who was decidedly upbeat.

"It is definitely better," she said. "The quality of life has gone up."

Griffin said city transportation officials have improved traffic and parking problems stemming from games at nearby Ravens and Orioles stadiums, and police have been largely successful "getting drug dealers out of the neighborhoods."

The hot housing market that has led to renovations of occupied and vacant homes also has helped.

"There's not that broken-window syndrome anymore," she said. "Houses that were vacant for years are being rehabbed. Four years ago, a shell could be bought for $60,000 to $65,000. Now, a shell goes for $130,000 to $135,000."

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Her neighborhood's biggest problem: higher property tax bills stemming from increases in home values.

Millie Jones, president of the Chinquapin Park Improvement Association in Northeast Baltimore, was similarly positive.

Jones said that after years of neglect by City Hall, her neighborhood - named for the narrow park that runs along its eastern boundary - is finally getting some attention in the form of the repaving of alleys and the repair of sidewalks uprooted by trees. "That's a big, big plus," she said.

And she said officials have promised to deal with problems in the park, including the loss of mature trees from erosion.

Although vacant housing isn't a problem, she said her neighborhood needs better enforcement of housing-code violations to help keep it stable.

Keith Wilkes, president of the Darley Park Community Association south of Clifton Park in East Baltimore, was more equivocal. "It's pretty much a mixed bag," was his answer.

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As an example, he noted progress in driving drug dealers off Harford Road, but said they still operate with impunity along Cliftview and Normal avenues. And, he said, vacant housing on those streets and elsewhere remains a "massive problem" that had yet to be addressed, along with the lack of youth recreation opportunities exacerbated this summer by the closing for repairs of the Clifton Park pool.

Earl Matthews, head of the Dorchester Community Association in Northwest Baltimore and Wayne Kraft, a leader in the North Highlandtown Community Association in Southeast Baltimore, were insistent things in their neighborhoods are going downhill.

Matthews said drug dealers driven from elsewhere have set up shop in his community. "Corner sales have increased," he said.

Kraft tells a similar tale of the situation in his neighborhood. "The drug-dealing at one point was limited," he said. "Now, we have drug dealers operating on a 24-7 basis."

And he calls illegal dumping a "serious issue" that is largely ignored. "Several alleys are so clogged you can't pass through them," he said. The assessment on his home this year dropped by $5,000. "It's very, very frustrating," he said.

No matter what your answer to the question of whether your neighborhood is better off than it was four years ago, there is of course a second pertinent question before election day: Who can best continue, or begin, progress in the mayor's office or on the City Council?

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That's a question voters in each neighborhood will have to decide.


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