Waverly

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Not quite downtown and not quite uptown, Waverly nevertheless represents the heart of Baltimore City's geography with the style of a once-famous uncle at a family dinner. While it may not be the magnet of attention it was in decades past, the neighborhood still commands respect.

[ ][ ]For years, Waverly served as the city's soul. On its eastern edge, Memorial Stadium regularly played host to 50,000 or so fans of the Colts (who played there from 1953-1983), Orioles (1954-1991) and Ravens (1996 and 1997).

[ ][ ]Dubbed "The World's Largest Outdoor Insane Asylum" during the Colts' glory years -- when the roar of the crowd could be heard inside the neighborhood's sturdy stone-and-brick rowhouses and aging Victorians -- Memorial Stadium eventually met the wrecking ball in 2001.

[ ][ ]As fans headed to new downtown sports palaces, much of Waverly's central business district left too, leading some residents to worry that the once-jumping strip would become yet another ghost town amid the bustle of the city.

[ ][ ]Old-time sports bars and shot-and-beer joints that served workers and ball park customers from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. went out of business, as did some smaller specialty shops that had begun to teeter before the home of Brooks Robinson and John Unitas was transformed from a memorial into dust.

[ ][ ]The Boulevard Theatre, a neighborhood monument that featured a stylish entrance and a massive marquee, shut its doors in 1989, becoming an eyesore at the neighborhood's landmark corner of Greenmount Avenue and 33rd Street. It was followed by a pair of Chinese restaurants, diminishing a once- venerable "Asian row" north of 33rd.

[ ][ ]Much of what is left of the Greenmount Avenue strip -- a preponderance of discount stores, fried chicken shacks, pawn shops and vintage clothing stores, including a Goodwill outlet -- has a rough quality that is attractive to nostalgic urban types, poor young hipsters and working-class shoppers looking for bargains. Normal's Books & Records, a bookstore that offers up the used and the unusual (as well as experimental and avant-garde music in The Red Room), the All- People's Congress (a haven for anti-war activists and pro-labor organizers), and the Thir-Tea-First Street Cafe and Tea Room (on East 31st Street, naturally) hearken back to the 1970s and '80s, when Waverly was the neighborhood of choice for artists, eccentrics and political dissenters. Another hanger-on, Pete's Grille , has been slinging hash and serving eggs for Waverly's finest for nearly 30 years -- and became known last summer for being the breakfast spot of choice for Olympic multi-gold-medal swimmer Michael Phelps.

[ ][ ]A weekly farmers' market , one of the first in the Baltimore area, is held Saturdays on the neighborhood's southwestern fringe and serves as a tribute to Waverlyites' ongoing penchant for authenticity and simplicity (Bringing the farm to the parking lot).

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[ ][ ]Although the neighborhood of about 40,000 retains much of its downscale charm, city fathers and residents have higher aspirations for it.

[ ][ ]"Memorial Stadium used to be a big part of the spirit of Baltimore, and even though much of the city is in a bit of a funk these days, we're working hard to develop some community spirit here," says Myles Hoenig, president of the Waverly Improvement Association. The association represents the largest part of the neighborhood, north of 33rd Street, to 39th, and from Greenmount east to the former Memorial Stadium site. (The Better Waverly Community Organization represents a smaller part of the neighborhood south of 33rd, to 27th Street, and east to Loch Raven Boulevard.)

[ ][ ]While developers and city government representatives tout Waverly's new additions, which include a Giant supermarket, a Blockbuster video store and a complex of housing and recreational facilities on the old stadium property, neighborhood leaders point to the area's relatively low crime, its far-flung ethnic makeup, varied housing stock and affordability. The average price of a home in the neighborhood was in the $50,000-$60,000 range in 2003. "That's about one-third of what it costs to live in parts of Ednor Gardens [the neighborhood east of the stadium]," Hoenig says. "Prices in Waverly are starting to creep up, but this is still one of the major bargains in the city."

[ ][ ]He adds that professionals who work at Johns Hopkins University's main campus (nine blocks to the west) or even in Washington, D.C. (45 miles south) have begun to move into the neighborhood, joining the old guard of delivery persons, industrial workers, office jockeys, retirees and teachers. "The newer people moving in don't even know there was a Memorial Stadium," says Hoenig. "Now's the time for the neighborhood to develop a new sense of character."

[ ][ ]The stadium site now features a lesser athletic emporium -- a neighborhood YMCA that opened in September 2004 and features a full array of workout equipment and sports programs for people of all ages. Already, Hoenig says, the facility is showing signs of rivaling the farmers' market as a top neighborhood gathering spot. The Memorial Stadium site's other additions, a community playground and housing for the elderly, will be completed by the summer of 2005.

[ ][ ]Keeping the neighborhood's younger residents may prove to be the major stumbling block for the neighborhood, which showed a 13 percent drop in residents from the 1990 U.S. Census to 2000. The bad reputation of city public schools chased many city-lovers to the suburbs, but Waverly Elementary School has consistently improved its state test scores in recent years. City College, a high school that draws promising students from all parts of Baltimore with its international baccalaureate and humanities programs, perches castle-like just off the neighborhood's southeastern edge.

[ ][ ]Jobs are also an issue. The 2000 Census figured the neighborhood's unemployment rate at about 10 percent. A move by Johns Hopkins University into a former high school building across 33rd Street from the old stadium has re-energized a long-vacant building and brought the promise of service jobs along with it. The same goes for the 60,000-square-foot Giant, which opened just off the busy corner of Greenmount and 33rd in July 2004.

[ ][ ]The intersection sees traffic at the rate of 50,000 vehicles per day -- information that city leaders have used to justify grants made to spiff up Greenmount between 28th and 35th streets. The 7,500 people who daily board or get off buses along the strip guarantee the steady foot traffic that attracts businesses.

[ ][ ]The so-called Waverly Main Street project is one of seven urban shopping districts that has received city money to make physical improvements at local shops. The state has also made grants to the Waverly Main Street program -- for a total of about $1 million in public funds -- which has garnered about $3 million in additional private investment, says Winkie Campbell-Notar, Waverly Main Street's program director.

[ ][ ]While some say that the Main Street money has led to only cosmetic improvements, Campbell-Notar contends that the program's first phase was to shore up the strip's existing businesses. "Now, we're ready to move into business recruitment," says Campbell-Notar. "The community wants more services, like insurance and real estate, as well as a coffee shop. We're also looking at creative ways we can use our second floors."

[ ][ ]The idea isn't to remake Waverly, Campbell-Notar says. Three quarters of the strip's 140 businesses are locally owned -- a high percentage for any city neighborhood -- and members of 14 different ethnic groups own the majority of them. Many of the owners are immigrants or first-generation Americans, groups that have traditionally added vitality to urban business strips.

[ ][ ]"There's a lot going on here right now," says Campbell-Notar, citing longtime businesses such as the city's first Thai Restaurant. "We're trying to build on what we already have."

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