Once upon a time in the old city, in the Baltimore we can only imagine because so much of it has vanished, members of the Eastside Association Reindeer Club gathered in a Formstone-covered rowhouse in the 1200 block of E. Preston Street. The place is empty now, a rowhouse without a row, the last structure standing on the north side of the block. Members of the social club, and most of the socializing such places once represented, are gone.
But I'm not here for nostalgia, or for dreary contemplations about how much bigger and better Baltimore used to be.
We need to get to the other side of the street because, despite all dark and dystopian views, there's a lot going on there — the hard sweat of wrecking crews and carpenters, of brick salvagers and bricklayers. I'm not talking about tall cranes and towering buildings so much as the gritty, ground-level work of everyday redevelopment in the old rowhouse neighborhoods. There's a shocking amount of it in East Baltimore.
Across Preston Street from the abandoned Reindeer Club, for instance, there's a three-story apartment building in the middle of the block, rowhouses on either side, with the front entrance set back from the sidewalk. Once upon a time, the setback and arched, marble entrance must have given the building a touch of grandeur.
When Google Street View recorded the scene, the place was abandoned and boarded, the entrance choked with weeds, vines and squatter trees. Someone had painted a cat creature on the front door.
Even so, you could imagine the building at peak occupancy in the old city, with tenants leaning out the windows on a warm spring day just like Thursday, the day I chose for a drive-by.
But, as I said, I'm not here for nostalgia.
I'm here for shock value.
I stop to have a look because the apartment building is in full revival. Men are working on it. The interior has been gutted, the masonry stabilized, the walls and windows reframed. "It's going to be 14 apartments of affordable housing," says Alvin Smith, whose company, Post LLC, is working on the project with a developer.
So I had one of those moments that occur whenever I visit East Baltimore, particularly north of the sprawling Hopkins medical campus and Eager Park. I walk or drive along a street of vacant houses or vacant lots, and suddenly, there they are — men at work, hard-hatted and dust-covered, coming off backhoes or climbing down from scaffolding.
One block looks dreary and abandoned, the next loved and restored.
At Gay Street near Broadway, I uttered some kind of exclamation at the sight: Half a block of rowhouses so near collapse they needed to be shored from the sidewalk, the other half newly renovated and occupied.
Humanim, the busy non-profit with headquarters in the nearby American Brewery building a few blocks away, will assign workers to deconstruct the vacant houses, salvaging brick and beam, and leaving eight of the facades for a restoration project by Metro Rebuild, a non-profit developer that works in low-income communities.
I drove by the old Bugle Laundry, on Chester Street, and found it being demolished for a new 50,000-square-foot wellness center, a project of the Rev. Donte Hickman's Southern Baptist Church. Hickman's ambitious development group built — and rebuilt after the fire of April 27, 2015 — the Mary Harvin Senior Center up the street. Acquiring the laundry location was the next step in the redevelopment plan for Broadway East.
On Biddle Street, workers at the A. Hoen and Sons building were on lunch break. Their project, the reuse of an 85,000-square-foot lithography plant, will become the Center for Neighborhood Innovation, with office, retail and event space. Strong City Baltimore plans to move there next year.
I drove by the Baltimore Food Hub on Oliver Street. Humanim is involved in that project, too. It's a place where startup caterers and food entrepreneurs can work and where food service workers will be trained. There are five amazing old buildings on the grounds slated for renovation and reuse.
Across the street, I found volunteers with the military veterans of the 6th Branch cleaning up a vacant lot. There are a lot of committed people at work on the east side.
In Cups, at Broadway and Preston, I got coffee and fruit salad from the manager, Kenika Walker, and the place was so comfortable, inviting and wifi'd, I could have spent the rest of the day there.
I drove to Fayette Street to see the aftermath of the demolition of the old, stone Volunteers of America building near the main post office. There's a massive vacant lot there, for now, revealing the shell of the abandoned Hendler Creamery, a block-long ice cream plant that will become part of a $75 million residential development. And nearby a new Ronald McDonald House rises, and a new McKim Park, and it goes on and on. It's shocking.