City demolishes blighted block

The Baltimore Sun

As the steel claw of the orange excavator tore into the vacant rowhouses, some longtime residents of one block of Tivoly Avenue cheered the razing of the stretch of dilapidated homes.

But others looked on with skepticism at a city-led initiative to turn around a Northeast Baltimore neighborhood that in recent years has been overwhelmed by drugs, crime and grime.

"Now [the city's] started doing something about it and we're glad about that," said Betty Jones, 45, a 10-year resident and renter. "A lot of us are ready to go."

Yesterday's demolition of 10 rowhouses marked the opening act in a $3.8 million effort to tear down scores of troubled properties in the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello neighborhood, and relocate homeowners and renters while community leaders and city officials craft a redevelopment plan. City officials say 13 more communities will be similarly targeted.

"If the revitalization continues, it's a good thing," said Olive Stewart, 61, who has lived on the block - the 2700 block of Tivoly Ave. - for 30 years and spoke of her unsuccessful attempts to sell her well-kept home in past years.

"But if it's just going to be an area to throw garbage," Stewart said, her words trailing off as she gazed at the vacant houses yesterday morning.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City has been criticized for spending millions of dollars on demolishing homes in blighted areas without having solid plans for how they will redevelop the properties, such as the case with Tivoly Avenue.

Paul T. Graziano, the city housing commissioner, said it's the city's responsibility to clear uninhabitable properties and make room for revitalization. The city expects to take down more than 40 more houses in the vicinity.

He said the city expects to help relocate about nine homeowners and eight families who rent houses on the street. The money is coming from the city's Affordable Housing Program, which was created in 2005 by city leaders as part of a deal to help win support for a city-owned hotel adjacent to the Baltimore Convention Center.

"I'm here today to tell you that Tivoly is the centerpiece of what we intended that program to be for, which is to eliminate these vast pockets of blight and to allow people to live in a decent place without this in their midst," Graziano told a crowd of residents who gathered to watch the demolition. "The ongoing benefit is that this land will be cleared and made available for development of affordable housing."

The 2700 block of Tivoly Ave. is a street with a sad past.

It is the block on which Iven Bailey had grown up, later becoming one of more than 2,200 high school students who in 2005 were attending class even while homeless. The Sun chronicled his story and his return to a rented room on Tivoly for a portion of his senior year at nearby Lake Clifton High School.

And it is the block on which a rowhouse at 2781 burned in May 1982, killing 10 people in the cramped dwelling. The fire started when a candle toppled over and ignited a sofa and is still ranked as the city's deadliest blaze in the past 60 years.

As the houses tumbled yesterday, residents spoke about the sense of community that has remained on the block despite the blight. People know each other, and still try to look out for one another.

Tony McIntosh, who has lived on Tivoly for about 40 years, said that he wanted to see the block improve, and he didn't believe demolishing it was the way to do it.

"I can remember when there was green grass," he said. "There was a community. We all looked out for one another." To a degree, he said, it is still that way, but now he and his family will soon begin looking for another place to live.

"I have been living here all my life," McIntosh said. "I've seen it prosper and I've seen it go to the dogs."

Now, he said, they are coming in to tear it down. "I ain't saying I am against change, but this is ridiculous."

Zac Jones, who rents a house with his sister and her children, said he was not happy about the demolition, just a few doors away from his front porch.

"To me this is not fun. It is pretty sad," Jones said. He believes his family and other renters won't come out as well as the homeowners.

Tivoly Avenue has been the scene of violent crime, including several homicides in past years, and rampant drug dealing. Maj. Delmar Dickson, commander of the Northeastern District, said drug dealers use the vacant houses to stash drugs and guns, while homeless people will live there and sometimes create fire hazards.

"This [demolition] is desperately needed for this area," Dickson said. "They have been vacant for quite some time. You've got to do something to create hope."

Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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