Someone spray-painted a question on the sheet of plywood that covers the front door of one of the old, lovely and abandoned three-story rowhouses near Lafayette Square in West Baltimore: “Why no Starbucks here?”
I suppose this was meant to be ironic in that dystopian way we’ve grown accustomed to since the Freddie Gray uprising of nearly five springs ago.
But for Matthew King, an earnest young man with a background in finance and real estate who wants to make a difference in Our City of Perpetual Recovery, it’s a real question: Why no Starbucks? Or, better, why no locally owned coffee shop at the corner of Lafayette and Carey, or some other spot in Harlem Park?
And why not a robust neighborhood full of people again? Why not row after row of renovated rowhouses? Why not build new housing in some of the vacant lots? Why not green space? Why not urban gardens? Why not a 4-H Club for kids in grades four through eight at Harlem Park Elementary-Middle School? Why not make Harlem Park an attractive bedroom community for people who work in Washington? The MARC train stop is just a few blocks away, along Franklin Street. Why not?
This is the kind of audacity the city needs, the kind of person who counters cynicism with vision and defeat with energy. He’s a man with little time for dark irony. The challenge he’s taken on is huge, and some might say hopeless.
But I’m not going to stand there, on a morning in March, and tell him that.
At 33, King is a relatively recent arrival to an area with one of the highest concentrations of vacant rowhouses in Baltimore. He’s president of the still-new Harlem Park Community Development Corp. In fact, he helped revive the nonprofit and declare its mission last year: “Community investment to correct a legacy of historic disinvestment.” That’s a quick way of summarizing a very large ambition to fix a very long decline.
If you’ve never been there, the level of abandonment and blight in Harlem Park and nearby stretches of West Baltimore can be shocking. The University of Baltimore’s Jacob France Institute, which measures city trends, found a 30 percent vacant-and-abandoned rate in the area that includes Harlem Park. It looks worse than that when you go there.
But, through all this, as you scan the hollow houses and the vacant lots, you can see the grandeur that once was. Squint a little and, like Matthew King and his associates with the Harlem Park CDC, you might see what could be again.
Pardon my reverie: The rowhouses facing Lafayette Square are three-story gorgeous. The once-grand Sellers Mansion, built just after the Civil War at Arlington Avenue and Lanvale Street, is depressingly decrepit but seems to be holding on until the right suitor can be found. The churches around the park are mighty fortresses of stone.
A bit farther to the west is Harlem Park itself, once one of the city’s largest squares, according to Eli Pousson’s history for Baltimore Heritage. There’s an old photograph of a man in a top hat, seated on a park bench, and he looks to be peering into a baby stroller. The photo seems to have been taken on some long-ago sunny afternoon, perhaps a Sunday, and there’s a fountain nearby. Once upon a time, Harlem Park had flower gardens shaped like “stars, diamonds, Maltese crosses, hearts, ovals, circles, and semicircles.” And, Pousson discovered, the park had “a white mulberry tree that was a delight to the neighborhood, and a great flowering tree of the lobelia family, abundant in the Hawaiian Islands.”
End of reverie, now back to the ambition of the Harlem Park CDC: Get something started here. Build 15 units of affordable housing in the 600 block of N. Carey St. Build and sell single-family homes in the 500 block of N. Arlington Ave. Renovate a couple of houses in the 500 block of N. Carrollton Ave. Work with the city’s housing commissioner. Strike a partnership with Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake. Apply for help from the Enterprise Community Loan Fund, Baltimore Community Lending and maybe the city’s new Neighborhood Impact Investment Fund; it’s there to help lure development to the most troubled neighborhoods.
A lot of the residents of Harlem Park are up in years, says King, many of them homeowners who have stayed in place while others abandoned their neighborhood. On some blocks now, there are only one or two homeowners left. “We need a fresh new wave of homeowners,” he says.
I wished Matthew King good luck and told him I’d be back to check up on him. Maybe someday we’ll have a cup of coffee at the corner of Carey and Lafayette.