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Promising plan, huge challenge: A Harlem Park renaissance in West Baltimore | COMMENTARY

Matthew King, president of the Harlem Park Community Development Corp., stands in one of the 29 "inner block parks" created 60 years ago as part of an urban renewal plan for the area. This park included a tennis court.
Matthew King, president of the Harlem Park Community Development Corp., stands in one of the 29 "inner block parks" created 60 years ago as part of an urban renewal plan for the area. This park included a tennis court. (Baltimore Sun staff)

Sixty years ago, urban renewal came to Harlem Park, and the West Baltimore neighborhood has never been the same. In the cause of “slum clearance,” the city demolished dozens of houses with no plan to replace them or relocate their residents. Officials carved away half of gorgeous Harlem Square Park for a school and athletic fields, removed streetcar lines that connected the neighborhood’s residents to jobs and downtown shopping, and demolished 12 blocks of houses and businesses to make way for a doomed interstate connector that became known as the Highway to Nowhere.

The city also created 29 “inner block parks” that the remaining residents did not want, that the city had no intention of maintaining and that soon became dumping grounds for trash.

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I think that just about covers it.

Whenever some urban planner claims, several decades on, that the actions of earlier visionaries were “ill conceived” or “doomed to failure,” I hesitate to agree. Hindsight is always 20/20, and it’s easy to castigate your antecedents for their decisions when they’ve long been on the wrong side of the grass.

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But, in the case of Harlem Park, all studies — and there have been many — pretty much concur that the urban renewal launched in 1961 did far more harm than good. It also appears to have been racist because, by the time the wrecking crews arrived, Harlem Park had been for four decades the home of Black Baltimoreans who settled in the area when white residents fled further west and to the suburbs. It’s doubtful Harlem Park would have suffered as it did had the neighborhood remained white.

The powers that be were callous in their approach. An archived document from Baltimore’s urban renewal agency clearly states that, while more than 5,000 people were expected to be displaced by the renewal projects, the city had no plan for new housing in Harlem Park and no plan to relocate its residents elsewhere, not even into what officials in those days of segregation, discrimination and redlining called “negro housing.”

So Harlem Park changed, and not for the good. Over the years, it has lost even more residents, and numerous rowhouses have been abandoned; many have been torn down.

And yet, this old neighborhood of leafy parks, broad streets and grand old churches somehow exudes potential.

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Now, six decades later, the community has a freshly minted master plan that could reverse a lot of the damage and launch a revival. But it’s a huge task that requires the kind of audacity and idealism I heard when I first met Matthew King on West Lanvale Street two years ago.

King, with a background in real estate and finance, established the Harlem Park Community Development Corp. and serves as its president. The CDC hired Ayers Saint Gross architects to develop the plan; Amber Wendland, senior planner, led the team that researched the history, gathered community input and proposed ideas. It’s an exciting and promising plan that acknowledges the significant historic and contemporary market obstacles King and his collaborators face as they work toward a Harlem Park renaissance. But it also recognizes opportunity — even in the legacy of 1960s urban renewal.

Starting in the 19th century, alley houses were built behind the stately rowhouses of Harlem Park’s main streets. This created socioeconomic diversity in the neighborhood — doctors, dentists, lawyers and pastors with large families lived in the big homes while blue-collar workers occupied the small dwellings behind them. In the years after World War II, however, the city recognized health and safety problems with the alley houses. The 1961 urban renewal plan called for demolishing them and leaving those aforementioned “inner block parks” in their place.

It sounds good — a sort of common backyard for the families that occupied the big rowhouses. But, according to the new Harlem Park Master Plan and other sources, no one really wanted the parks. People who remained were primarily stoop sitters, not keen about hanging out behind their rowhouses. And apparently the responsibility for maintaining each park was never clear. The city did not maintain them and they were generally neglected and invited dumping.

So the city displaced hundreds of families and created small parks that, aside from one converted to a tennis court, served little purpose.

However, 60 years later, most of the current residents of Harlem Park want to keep the little parks. They said so in a survey.

So the master plan offers several clever ideas for better integrating the parks with new and existing housing — expanding them, making them more accessible, perhaps using part of each for parking, community gardens or solar farms. The master plan suggests bringing back alley houses — small, two-story affordable rowhouses, duplexes, cottages or carriage houses. It also imagines new detached, single-family homes on some of Harlem Park’s many vacant lots.

But, ultimately, says King, it’s the old buildings, the houses and churches, the old Harlem Park Theater on Gilmor Street — survivors of both urban decay and urban renewal — that give him faith. “If you look around,” he says. “You see the assets and bones of what once was a great community. We need to get back to that great community, and even surpass it.”

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