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Relocation: Relief and regret


Hundreds of East Baltimore residents have received the first official notices that they will have to make way for a major revitalization project, and many are reacting with a mixture of resignation and relief.

"I have to accept it, and go from there," said Aldena Gladden, who must leave the house she has lived in since 1957 to make room for a new development centered around a biotech park. But the 78-year-old widow is less than pleased about the prospect of boxing up almost five decades of memories and starting anew.

"I don't feel too good about moving at this point in my life," she said yesterday. "I know it's a good thing for the city. But I've lived here so many years, and I don't know how I'll adjust to a new situation. In some ways, I feel like it's not fair."

Gladden's home on Rutland Avenue was one of 255 east-side households - about 40 percent of them homeowners and the rest renters - that were to be sent letters at the end of last week letting them know the city would acquire their properties.

In all, the city is taking 831 properties for the first phase of the project aimed at reviving the area north of the Johns Hopkins medical complex that is one of the most decayed sections of the city. Among the properties are 13 businesses and 563 vacant buildings and lots.

The notices are hardly a surprise. Plans for the project - to be built in several stages over a dozen years at an estimated cost of $800 million - were unveiled three years ago and have been discussed at countless community meetings.

Still, the letters were for many a stamp of certainty.

"It's better to let me know so I can get on with it," said Mollie Jordan, who has lived in the same McDonogh Street rowhouse for 51 of her 79 years. She said her main requirement for a new home is that it be within walking distance of her place of worship, the United Baptist Church on Broadway, a block from her current home.

"When I got here, I thought I'd be here until the good Lord took me home," she said. "I hate to move. I know I have to."

Under the redevelopment plan, each displaced family will be assigned to one of eight family advocates to assist in the relocation. Displaced homeowners will receive the appraised value of their home plus up to $70,000 toward buying a new home, plus moving expenses and a $1,000 grant for miscellaneous expenses; renters will get up to 6 1/2 years of assistance in paying rents on new apartments.

"I'm fully aware that this is a very difficult process for the families impacted by this project," said Jack Shannon, president and CEO of East Baltimore Development Inc., the nonprofit set up by the city to oversee the revitalization. "As such, it is our moral responsibility to make sure it is as stress-free as possible for them. ..."

Although the relocation notices mailed Friday were the first formal word that the mass acquisition and relocation process is starting, about a dozen families were relocated late last year. Most of them previously lived in the largely vacant square block bounded by East Madison Street, Rutland Avenue, Ashland Avenue and North Wolfe Street where demolition began late last year and where the first of several planned life sciences buildings is to be built.

Because that block - and a mostly vacant square block to the east - are available to begin the biopark, there is less pressure to move quickly to acquire properties in the additional six square blocks that comprises the first phase of the project, Shannon said.

"We envision this [first phase] will be an 18-month-long process," Shannon said.

Still, Shannon pointed to the fact that two of every three properties are vacant as a reason for urgency: "The depopulation and disinvestment that has been inflicted on this community underscores the need for us to take the action we are taking."

A walk through the area yesterday revealed a textbook portrait of concentrated urban blight: abandoned rowhouses with the boards on their upper windows knocked out, front stoops that have crumbled into chunks of concrete and sidewalks littered with trash and discarded belongings.

The deterioration of the area is one reason some residents are welcoming the news.

"It's a relief," said Rita Berry, 61, a pediatric support worker at Johns Hopkins Hospital who bought what was then a newly renovated rowhouse on Rutland Avenue 13 years ago. "I don't like the garbage that's thrown in the alley, you've got rats running around, people just don't keep their houses up."

Berry, who is divorced, said she has enjoyed living within walking distance of her job but she hopes to retire within two years: "I want to move where there's trees and grass and no drug-infested streets."

Isaac Jones, who has lived on North Wolfe Street for two decades, sees the acquisition of his rowhouse as a chance to find more suitable quarters for his wife, Rochelle, who he says suffers from lupus and walks with a cane. "I want a house with everything on one floor, so she won't have to climb all these steps," he said.

But he is unhappy that residents who relocate outside the city won't receive as much money as those who move within Baltimore's boundaries. "I think we should get the whole package and move where we want to move," he said.

"I don't need no counseling," he added. "Give me the money that I can move from here satisfactorily. Give me justice."

Frances Matthews, who lives next door to the Joneses in the only house she has ever owned, feels differently about moving but has the same basic concern.

"I don't want to root up, but sometimes God has something better for you," the 59-year-old assistant cook at Johns Hopkins Hospital said.

"I'm hoping with all sincerity that through all this they treat everyone fairly and let us be comfortable, not have us moving and have another headache," she said. "Are you doing this for the benefit of us or the benefit of you? That means a whole lot."

At least one of the 13 businesses affected by the first phase of the redevelopment doesn't have any concerns about relocation: George Watson, proprietor of GW Laundromat on East Eager Street, is planning to close up shop, in part because of declining business.

"Five or six years ago on a Monday, you couldn't even get in here," he said as he sat at one end of a row of washers and dryers late yesterday morning. "Today, I haven't even had one person in here."

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