A historic neighborhood fights to protect its identity


Not long after Betty Bland-Thomas moved into her home on Cross Street in Sharp-Leadenhall four years ago, she began hauling a broom outside and sweeping the street. Not just the part in front of her home - the entire block.

"People would come up and ask me what I was doing, saying that's crazy," she says, laughing. "I'd just say I want it to look nice."

The determined Bland-Thomas is poised to take on a more daunting task: The community president wants to turn the tide of market forces and block the sky-high home prices of neighboring Federal Hill and the Otterbein from spreading to Sharp-Leadenhall.

City planners are trying to help her with a "master plan" that guarantees a number of affordable homes in the neighborhood, one of Baltimore's oldest African-American communities. The Planning Commission will consider the plan this afternoon.

It's not that the community want to insulate itself from progress. The fear is that with South Baltimore property values rising to once-unfathomable levels, the fragments that remain of Sharp-Leadenhall's black working class past will disappear.

"We don't want to stop progress," Bland-Thomas says. "But we don't want our progress to lose our history."

Established by freed slaves and German immigrants about 1790, the now-faded Sharp-Leadenhall was once an abolitionist hub. After the Civil War, as many as 4,200 blacks lived in the area, then known as South Baltimore, home.

The neighborhood's scruffy 10 blocks are all that remain of that. Nearly 800 people live there, about 70 percent of them black. But that ratio is gently shifting. From 1990 to 2000, whites moved in looking for houses more affordable than those in Federal Hill, and blacks left.

Meanwhile, Sharp-Leadenhall home prices began creeping up.

Last year, homes there sold for an average of $257,060, nearly $100,000 more than in the year before. That's well short of the Federal Hill average, $371,901, but Bland-Thomas knows that is enough to price some people out.

"Working people cannot afford to purchase a home for a quarter of a million dollars," she says. "Shouldn't residents who've been here for hundreds of years be able to stay here?"

Sharp-Leadenhall was hit hard in the late 1960s when hundreds of homes were razed and thousands of people were displaced to make way for a highway expansion that never happened. City urban renewal efforts that followed split South Baltimore into two pieces, Sharp-Leadenhall and Inner Harbor West.

The city offered Inner Harbor West properties at rock-bottom prices to developers who restored them to form the foundation for what has become Otterbein, an upscale, overwhelmingly white enclave steps from Sharp-Leadenhall.

In 2003, a documentary maker walked the streets of Sharp-Leadenhall to capture that disparity, filming dilapidated city-owned properties and talking to former residents who remembered better times. He crafted the footage into a 15-minute not-so-subtle statement about how Baltimore had let down one of its historic communities.

Even its title, A Promise to Keep, seemed designed to needle city officials into doing something to help the languishing area.

Bland-Thomas and other Sharp-Leadenhall activists proudly show off the Megaphone Project film, and they say they're grateful that it expresses what they had been trying to tell people for so long, that their neighborhood deserved better.

The city seems to agree.

"We want to turn that around," says Jerome Chou, a city planner. "They have every right to have as strong a neighborhood fabric as Federal Hill."

Now that Sharp-Leadenhall is feeling the "excellent pressures" of rising property values, says city Planning Director Otis Rolley III, it is imperative to preserve its rich history.

"This community from its very conception was mixed," Rolley says. "We want to make sure that it continues to be diverse ... and we're using every means possible to be sure that occurs.

"We don't really win to become an overpriced city that no one can afford to live in."

The city's plan for the community is three-pronged, targeting the affordable-housing problem and a couple of ways to make the area feel more like a neighborhood.

To stabilize the housing, the city bundled 30 of its properties there last year, some of them vacant and others occupied by low-income renters, and allowed developers to bid on renovating and managing them.

The French Co. won with its promise that the renovated homes would go to low-income residents. The deal hinges on the state's granting French federal low-income tax credits.

Stabilizing those homes is critical, says Mike Bandorff, Sharp-Leadenhall's community planner.

"You've got this neighborhood getting ready to thrive except for these run-down houses," Bandorff says. "If that goes forward, it will be a solid achievement, something to build on."

Next, the city would adjust Sharp-Leadenhall's outdated zoning, which casts much of the area as heavy industrial, discouraging people from creatively renovating the many vacant and underused factories and warehouses.

To bring a taste of Federal Hill's vibrant restaurant and shop scene Sharp-Leadenhall's way, the city would adjust the zoning on Cross Street to allow for mixed use.

Amid the changes, it's imperative to Bland-Thomas that Sharp-Leadenhall retain its identity. As she tries to do when she takes her broom to her neighborhood's streets, Bland-Thomas hopes Sharp-Leadenhall can shine a bit more and not become a different place.

"We struggled for years just to continue to exist," she says. "When people come through our neighborhood, we want them to know they are in Sharp-Leadenhall. We are not an extension of Federal Hill."

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