The Baltimore Sun

If you've thought lately about moving to Baltimore's Patterson Park neighborhood, thank Ed Rutkowski.

The community activist leveraged everything he could get, from local volunteers to government funding, to help reverse its decline into crime, abandonment and decay. Ten years after he founded the nonprofit Patterson Park Community Development Corp., the Southeast Baltimore neighborhood is generally hailed as a turnaround success story - so much so that his group is looking for new challenges in other places.

The CDC has focused much of its attention on buying and redeveloping rowhouses, but Rutkowski wasn't a developer by trade. A software development manager, first for IBM and then for UPS, he brought an engineer's eye to the challenge of neighborhood revitalization: See things the way they are, not as you wish they would be. And fix them.

"I really believe in cities," said Rutkowski, 59, who grew up in Baltimore and now lives in a Canton condo with his wife of 30 years, Kay Rutkowski, a retired nurse. "I think cities are the height of civilization, not the suburbs, and that just makes them more important." With the housing market slowing across the region and the nation, sharply in some places, do you think Baltimore's revitalization will slow or stop?

There are things that are going to continue to drive people into Baltimore City. The lack of places to build in the suburbs, the expense of the county, the traffic. Those things are going to drive people to continue to live in the city, so I do think that even though the market's slow now, that inevitably it picks up again. Which areas of the city do you believe hold the most promise for revitalization?

The places that are the most affordable are going to appeal to the people with the least money. ... The places near MARC stations are going to appeal to people who work in Washington. Places near institutions - Hopkins, University of Maryland - clearly they're going to appeal to people who work at Hopkins, University of Maryland. Places with particular kinds of housing stock are going to appeal to people who want that kind of housing stock. ... So there are things that are going to drive each market, each subset of the market. Then the question is, how big is the demand going to be for any of those things? ... Each neighborhood has a set of strengths to build on, and it's a question of finding those things - for each neighborhood to work at attracting the kind of people that they're going to appeal to. Are you concerned that Baltimore's crime troubles will undermine renewal efforts?

The question is, do I worry about it? I don't worry about it. Why? Don't think you get off that easily.

Because I think ... as long as we keep taking back our neighborhoods a block at a time, our city a neighborhood at a time, the places where we do that, where people keep moving in, by virtue of the fact that we've got new people willing to fight, that crime will continue to lessen. I think really, part of the historical problem has been that there wasn't enough demand to hardly change anywhere, and as a consequence, crime was more clearly a problem. Regardless of who is at fault, do you think that the poor performance of the city's public schools works against families putting down roots in the city?

I think it does. I think it's inescapable. The next question is, how much, and are things getting better? I don't pay enough attention to know how the schools are doing citywide; I do know that we've opened what I think is a tremendously successful charter school here, Patterson Park Public Charter School. ... I know that people have stayed in this neighborhood with children because of the charter school. What steps could the city's political and business leaders take - besides spending money - to help revitalization?

The thing that I've said often enough is, 'You know, it does take money.' ... And [what] we've promoted - unsuccessfully, it's quite difficult - is to earmark some of the increase in tax revenue that we get from existing revitalization efforts for future revitalization efforts, and that way you extend success. ... I think the city needs to invest in its neighborhoods; the state and the federal government, especially, need to invest in cities. I don't think there's as much investment as there should be. I think we've too long viewed the urban situation as hopeless, and I hope that one of the things we've proven is it's not. But it's taken a tremendous investment of time and money. It doesn't just happen. What can grass-roots organizations do to become more effective at revitalization?

Form partnerships with other people and organizations that can help. And there's such a wide range. For instance, if you feel like you need a school, then you form a relationship with whoever it takes to start a school. If you feel like crime's a problem, then you really go out of your way to have a good relationship with the Police Department. ... If what you really need is community development in the 'development' sense, you try to find a developer, nonprofit or otherwise, who's willing to work with you. ... It's not easy, I certainly wouldn't claim that. But that's the path to success. Patterson Park Community Development Corp. has all but stopped buying homes in Patterson Park. You've said that one option for your future redevelopment work is to push northward, but you're also considering other neighborhoods elsewhere. Why? Are there challenges to the north that make such a move difficult?

The main thing that makes it difficult is the speculators, ... people who have bid up the houses to the point that it's not economically feasible to do the kind of development work that we have done. There's a terrific opportunity, I think, to again create a kind of mixed-income neighborhood there. But the prices for the properties make development of mixed-income housing quite difficult. I think in order for us to work to our north, we have to solve that problem so that we can be sure that when we're finished, we have a genuinely mixed-income, racially diverse neighborhood. Do you think it's harder or easier now - 10 years after you got into this line of work - to try to replicate your success elsewhere?

Certainly the higher prices are going to make it difficult, and I ask myself the question a lot, because when we started here, the prices were much lower. ... On the plus side: Ten years ago, this neighborhood and most of the city were given up on, I think; today the city is - I think - viewed very favorably. ... I just have this basic faith that increasing demand for living in Baltimore City is going to create the right environment for continued development. Patterson Park was undergoing a rapid shift from white to black as it declined in the 1990s. You've said one of your goals was to show naysayers that racial change and problems don't have to go hand-in-hand - that for Baltimore it had become a tragic self-fulfilling prophecy. Can you elaborate on that?

I think it comes back to a fundamental belief that is not as widely shared as I think it should be - that race doesn't really matter. That should be a fundamental principle of America. It just makes sense. All men are created equal. I don't think we believe that. I think we've let our cities go, and we didn't need to, and I think a lot of it comes down to race. ... [If] every time we turn around, it's another neighborhood failing because it's becoming minority, then people who say it's inevitable are in some sense always right, even if they're always right because they won't put the money into it. ... From my point of view, for the good of America, we need to keep proving that wrong. So we've done our little part.


Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad