Jacques Kelly: Legacy of 'Tony' Deering, the Oliver community's reticent donor, comes to light

A forlorn block of Gay Street rowhouses, vacant for more than a decade, seemed to embody the look of urban failure.

A few weeks ago, construction crews arrived, and now those units are being renovated and readied for new buyers.

The transformation of East Baltimore’s Oliver enclave and adjacent neighborhoods has been a steady, under-the-radar campaign. The reclamation of the 1200 block of Gay St., between Biddle and Preston streets, is emblematic of the quiet achievement in the area north of the Johns Hopkins medical campus.

Blocks are being rebuilt wall by wall, window by window and roof by roof. Where there were once 623 abandoned houses, there are now 360 rebuilt units — and more coming each month.

The new homes begin at $180,000.

More than a decade after this little-noticed neighborhood revolution began, the story of a philanthropist who made much of it possible has emerged.

Anthony W. "Tony" Deering, former head of the Rouse Co. who died last year at 72, will be honored next week in a ceremony acknowledging his behind-the scenes role in East Baltimore. He will be posthumously granted a Founders Award at the Memorial Baptist Church at Preston and Caroline streets.

“Tony took the rebuilding of East Baltimore as his personal mission,” said Sean Closkey, president of ReBuild Metro, a nonprofit that works toward community revitalization. “He said to me, ‘I’ll put down $1 million in cash and I’ll get the other investors. He came up with $10 million.”

That $10 million grew into a $90 million investment along the east and west sides of North Broadway at Gay Street.

Closkey said Deering met with local financial titans — from T. Rowe Price to Legg Mason — and offered a private plane to set up meetings with other moneyed people to join his personal crusade to fix homes on Oliver and Preston streets.

“He personally went with me to meet the who’s who of Baltimore,” Closkey said. “We set up meetings one by one.”

Deering headed the Rouse Co. — the firm that developed Columbia in Howard County and Baltimore’s Harborplace, among other projects — from 1997 to 2004. When he died, his obituary never mentioned his role as the financial strongman behind the revival of Oliver and its sister streets. Instead, he was recalled for his leadership in Baltimore’s arts, education and theater circles.

“Tony never wanted to crow about his role, but it was crucial. He wanted others to have to the credit,” Closkey said.

Deering was reacting to the 2002 deaths of the Dawson family, when seven members of that family were killed when an arsonist torched their East Preston Street home. A drug dealer had retaliated because the family repeatedly summoned police to report drug sales.

The killings shocked the Preston Street neighborhood — and the city at large. Local church congregations and the organization Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, or BUILD, demanded action.

ReBuild Metro stepped in, and discovered a visionary ally in Deering. As the group got busy and bought an old funeral home to serve as its headquarters, Deering lent his assistance — yet kept his name out of the limelight.

“Tony was a classic guardian angel,” Closkey said. “He never brought up his role.”

Closkey and his colleagues used federal historic tax credits and other financial tools to buy abandoned homes — some so neglected that trees were growing through the living rooms.

Some would have thought investing in one of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods would have been a dubious venture. Deering thought otherwise.

“It was 2010 and the real estate market was looking bad,” Closkey recalled. “But Tony had a steely-eyed determination. He said, ‘You have to keep thinking long-term.’”

Deering’s legacy is reflected in a housing rebirth that started at the grassroots level, Closkey said.

“It was a classic case,” he said, “of capitalism and community interest [coming] together.”

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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