Community waits for second chance


Cherry Hill is at a crossroads.

The virtually all-black South Baltimore community once was an economically diverse area, without today's blight and crime problems. Despite the high concentration of public housing - 1,718 low-income units were built after World War II - it attracted people with a variety of backgrounds, including a hefty dose of young homeowners with rising incomes.

Today's Cherry Hill looks very different. Over the past decade, several hundred of those public housing units were demolished or boarded up. And as many middle-class homeowners fled to newer developments that offered bigger and better houses, they left behind clusters of retirees.

A turnaround strategy once was in place and might have prevented this decline. But plans for newly constructed mixed-income housing stalled when attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit nearly nine years ago, accusing the city and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development of racial discrimination. They demanded that the city stop concentrating the construction of public housing in low-income, mostly black areas.

Cherry Hill's future is now in the hands of U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis. He heard three weeks of testimony - the last of it Tuesday - about how Baltimore determined the locations of its public housing complexes. When he rules on the case, probably next month, the outcome is likely to have a direct impact on Cherry Hill.

The plaintiffs in the case included Cherry Hill residents who testified about how they think their community became a pocket of poverty. Longtime resident Marion Golden, 80, says a verdict could end the uncertainty and finally allow the community to start growing again. Developer Wayne Alfurqan agrees.

"It would clear the air," said Alfurqan, who sees untapped opportunities in Cherry Hill.

Being in legal limbo has paralyzed the community, which has lost half its population in the past 30 years. About 7,700 people now live in Cherry Hill, according to census data. Nearly 35 percent of residents are under 18; 10 percent are over 65.

Cleoda Walker, 62, who has lived in Cherry Hill since she was 3, thinks she knows the key to a turnaround. "What we need is homeownership," she said.

A renter herself, the veteran state employee has seen many residents leave. "As it is now, there are no houses for people to buy who live here. And people who want to return back to the community can't find ample housing here," she said.

The original Cherry Hill, constructed between 1944 and 1960, attempted to achieve a balance that now is lacking, according to longtime residents and scholars.

It did not start as a concentrated pocket of poverty. The initial public housing tenants were carefully screened and required to have jobs. Records also show that even before the low-income units were finished, private builders constructed single-family homes that were eagerly grabbed by more affluent buyers - lawyers, teachers and steelworkers. They added to the economic diversity, as did market-rate renters.

That mix was part of a careful plan that saw the varying backgrounds, earning levels and housing forms as part of one community.

"Cherry Hill was never to be thought of simply as a 'housing project.' From the first it was intended to be a community," John R. Breihan, a Loyola College professor, wrote in a history published this year.

Walker remembers the early days.

"When Cherry Hill was first developed, it was like a suburb - trees, flowers," she recalled. "You could leave your front door and back door open at night - that was the only air conditioning we had."

All of that changed when admission criteria to public housing were relaxed and when bigger, more desirable houses became available in other parts of the city. Much of the original economic diversity disappeared.

Local leaders realize the community can't thrive as it is.

"We cannot just be a community for low-income people if we want to grow," said Evelyn Simmons-McCoy, 73, head of the Cherry Hill Development Corp. "It will not die, but it will not grow; it will stagnate."

That stagnation is already evident.

A ghost-town atmosphere pervades many parts of the community. Huge parcels of vacant land stand on sites of demolished public housing buildings. Hundreds of units are boarded up.

That atmosphere is also palpable at the Cherry Hill Town Center. The struggling strip mall reopened with great fanfare 17 months ago. Since then, it has lost its signature chain stores - Dunkin' Donuts, Subway and Mama Ilardo's - gutting what was supposed to be a food court.

There have been recent positive developments, including the opening of an apartment building for seniors. But Cherry Hill activists say that unless substantial private or public investment is injected quickly, the community will continue to decline.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City intended to play a major role in that rejuvenation. But the ACLU litigation has frozen those plans and stalled mixed-income homeownership developments that were supposed to replace demolished and boarded-up public housing complexes.

"The agency is not permitted to create new units," said Christopher Shea, a deputy director.

Under federal guidelines, the elected Cherry Hill Homes Tenants Council will have a pivotal role in any redevelopment of condemned public housing sites once the court case is resolved.

The organization's recent leaflets conjured the possibility of nearly 600 rent-to-own units coming to Cherry Hill, regardless of whether the tenants win their lawsuit. Representatives of other organizations that are at odds with the council characterized such projections as unrealistic.

Loretta Johnson, the tenant group's president, didn't return repeated telephone calls for comment.

Meanwhile, people in Cherry Hill are waiting. Many others have left in search of more varied housing opportunities.

Jimmie L. Hayes, 55, a firefighter who is a lifeguard at the Cherry Hill aquatic center, lives in Woodlawn. And Simmons-McCoy, of the Cherry Hill Development Corp., moved years ago to Yale Heights, several miles away. But she thinks it's only a matter of time before Cherry Hill real estate is rediscovered.

"Cherry Hill is sitting on a gold mine," she said, referring to the community's water views and proximity to downtown and Anne Arundel County.

"We are sitting on what practically is a paradise," she said. "But it could be Paradise Lost unless people pull together."

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