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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Old West Baltimore: Crying for Intervention

East Baltimore, despite its cookie cutter architecture and our current real estate crisis is experiencing a huge rebirth thanks to EBDI. Old West Baltimore, on the other hand has grand architecture yet has not experienced a rebirth in any way shape or form. The title of this post may be deceiving because Old West Baltimore has had some intervention but it hasn't produced the rippling effect of gentrification that's needed or the mix of incomes that the community had enjoyed in its glory day that current residents and city officials are trying to recapture.
The boundaries of Old West Baltimore are as follows; Franklin Street to the South, North Avenue to the North, Monroe Street to the West, Eutaw Place and MLK Boulevard to the East. The neighborhoods that lie within these boundaries are Upton, Druid Heights, Harlem Park, Sandtown Winchester, and Madison Park.There was a time when Old West Baltimore was what everyone wants it to be today a mixed income community that residents were proud to call home. Many of America's most influential African American leaders grew up within Old West Baltimore's boundaries. It was and will be Baltimore's Harlem, a point I will discuss more fully later in the post. Life centered around Pennsylvania Avenue with its eclectic mix of shoppes, boutiques, restaurants, and salons that catered well to the community. Houses were large frame row homes that provided residence for the poor and middle class. Those who could a afford lives in a single family unit and those with fewer means lived in a multi family home. Dividing large homes into smaller apartments was common practice for Old West Baltimore due to housing segregation laws in the early 20th century. This caused for overcrowding as was the case for all black communities across Baltimore and America with strict housing laws.
Between the two World Wars Baltimore saw a huge influx of blacks from the south. Most of them were poor and looking for work in Baltimore's then booming industrial economy in preparation for World War II. This influx did not mean an expansion of the area that blacks could live in. Old West Baltimore was beginning to show signs of blight and aging. In the early 1940s the city began erecting public housing projects to house poor residents. These pre war projects included McCollugh Homes/Spencer Gardens, Poe Homes, and Gilmor Homes. This provided housing for the poor and eliminated blight that was starting to show and helped deal with over crowding.After World War II Baltimore's Black population continued to explode. This time middle class residents didn't stay in Old West Baltimore. Instead they moved west of Monroe Street into formerly all white neighborhoods or "second hand suburbs." Old West Baltimore became almost exclusively poor. The city erected public housing high rises to help house this population . Murphy Homes and Lexington Terrace were built right across the street from each other and adjacent to McCollugh Homes and Poe Homes. This spelled the beginning of the end for Old West Baltimore.
After World War II a new highway system was being built nationwide and Baltimore was no different. Plans for an East West Expressway were on the drawing board roughly along North Avenue the northern border for Old West Baltimore. Also proposed was running I-70 through Leakin Park to meet I-95 and a spur called I-170 that would empty into Downtown. It would run between Franklin and Mulberry Streets demolishing all the homes and businesses in its path which just so happened to be the southern border of Old West Baltimore. Funny thing ended up happening they built the I-170 spur but Baltimore fought and won the battle against extending I-70 through Leaking Park so it ends just east of I-695. So right now there's this floating expressway that stops and starts with no rhyme or reason. The neighborhoods on either side were destroyed for nothing including the southern border of Old West Baltimore. The expressway remains the same today as it was in 1976 when it opened assuming it would connect to I-70. The East West Expressway never came to fruition either however, North Avenue was widened destroying the row homes and businesses along it.
I got a little ahead of myself when I talked about the interstates. Before the 1970s Old West Baltimore endured a huge blow as did all neighborhoods almost 40 years ago to the date. After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4th,1968 Baltimore erupted in riots from Poplar Grove St.on the west Milton Avenue on the East, 25th St. on the North and Baltimore St. on the south. This very obviously includes Old West Baltimore. For four days the city was under siege as Federal Troops were called in to restore order. Bombs went off, buildings were burned, looters attacked and injured hundreds of people. Several thousand arrests were made in Baltimore during those four days 25% of the nationwide following MLK's assassination. Old West Baltimore, like much of the city was left in shambles and Baltimore's reputation as being unsafe was as prevalent as ever.
Today Old West Baltimore is thought of just place to house the poor and nothing more, and no I didn't make that rhyme scheme on purpose. The mixed income community that Old West Baltimore was in its heyday is just a memory. Crime, drugs, blight, poverty, poor education, and population loss on a grander scale than the city's average have become a way of life for the residents who remain. The 2000 census paints the grim picture all too well. Druid Heights has a 40% vacancy rate, 29% Homeownership, 40% of the population making less than $10,000 and 71% of the population has no vehicle. Sandtown Winchester has a 27% vacancy rate, a 33% homeownership rate, 28% of the population making less than $10,000 and 68% of the population with no vehicles. Upton has a 22% vacancy rate, a 14% homeownership rate, 42% of the population making less than $10,000 and 74% of the population with no vehicles. Madison Park has a 22% vacancy rate, a 10% homeownership rate, 35% of the population making less than $10,000 and 56% of the population with no vehicles. Harlem Park has a 40% vacancy rate, a 22% homeownership rate, 36% of the population making less than $10,000 and 62% of the population with no vehicle. Of the three "Edison Schools" in the city tw o of them lie in Old West Baltimore Furman L. Templeton Elementary in Upton and Gilmor Elementary in Sandtown.
As far as intervention goes it's come in fits and spurts and the effect has been limited to the small area around it, in other words there hasn't been a comprehensive master plan for Old West Baltimore as a whole. What has taken place has been the demolition of the Murphy Homes high rises and Julian Gardens public housing projects with the Heritage Crossing town home community with a mixture of public housing and market rate homeown ership, Sandtown Winchester has had new affordable housing built mostly on its southeastern border and has been named an "Empowerment Zone" and has gotten slew of private investment from the Enterprise Foundation spear headed by none other than James W. Rouse, my personal hero. The Druid Heights redevelopment committee has been building affordable housing units there as well. Upton has come up with a master plan that focuses on its attributes, revitalization of Pennsylvania Avenue, building new affordable housing, and the rehabilitation of the architectural gems that have been rotting for decades on end. Pennsylvania Avenue has seen lots of commercial reinvestment on the private and public sector most not ably the Avenue Market renovation (formerly Lafayette Market) which has been an anchor to additional facade improvements along Pennsylvania Avenue. Pennsylvania Avenue was also designated as a Main Street which provides funds for streetscape enhancements.
Despite these isolated success stories Old West Baltimore as a whole is still crying for intervention. What needs to be done is to have a Comprehensive Master Plan for the area in question. It wouldn't get in the way of current efforts already in place but it would provide intervention for areas that have no vision set in place and it would treat all of Old West Baltimore as one area instead of a collection of different neighborhoods. The areas in question are Harlem Park and the north and west ends of Sandtown including Gilmor Homes where demolition plans may already be in the works. The redevelopment of Gilmor Homes and the Fulton Avenue and Monroe St. Corridors will finish what the Enterprise Foundation has started. The new development and rehabs will cater to middle to upper income buyers because everything else in the area has catered to low income renters and assisted homeownership. In this new development will be a new school that will consolidate small under utilized schools into a brand new state of the art campus called "Sandtown Winchester Elementary/Middle. The three schools that will be closed and housed in the new school are Gilmor Elementary, George G. Kelson Elementary, and William Pinderhuges Elementary. In Upton a similar school initiative will take place involving its schools except in this case an existing school building will be used to house the students from the closed schools. The Booker T. Washington building will be renamed "Heritage Crossing Elementary/Middle and it will house Furman L. Templeton, Eutaw Marshburn, and Samuel Coolidge Taylor Elementary Schools. Youth Opportunity and Renaissance Academy will relocate to the career center at Briscoe.
Harlem Park will receive the most attention as it is in the most dire situation. It, along with Franklin Square and Poppleton never recovered from the I-170 fiasco. Ironically, this puts Harlem Park in a unique situation that it can capitalize on. Once the Red Line gets built the TOD potential is huge. From the West Baltimore MARC Station to MLK Boulevard along is a blank canvas along Route 40/Edmondson Aveune/Franklin/Mulberry Streets. The expressway will be taken dismantled and the land it occupies will be raised up to ground level. All eastbound traffic will be diverted to Mulberry St. and all west bound traffic will be diverted to Franklin St. The Red Line will use the fact that the expressway is underground to its advantage providing a tunnel that already been dug. The expressway will have its original urban grid restored and high density mixed use development will connect the West Baltimore MARC Station to Downtown. This new development in the new defunct expressway will hopefully be pushed north and south by market forces into Harlem Park and Franklin Square respectively. Harlem Park will be reborn as an extension of Downtown while at the same time preserving its architecture when feasible. The two public squares will be community high lights hosting community functions in the summer. The schools will see a similar fate as others in Old West Baltimore Harriet Tubman, and Harlem Park Elementarys will be housed in a brand new Harlem Park Elementary/Middle. Harlem Park Middle will close as scheduled. Baltimore Talent Development High and Augusta Fells Academy of Visual Arts will now be housed at Edmondson-Westside High.
Old West Baltimore may be crying for intervention now but it can dry its eyes in the not to distant future especially with the State Center Development on the horizon. Old West Baltimore will truly be Baltimore's Harlem which went through a gentrification and an influx of new residents itself.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this beautiful piece of Baltimore History. I am a native of Argentina, work as an International staff in Johns Hopkins and many of my overseas patients have asked me frequently about the history revolving this city and I love Baltimore History. I have been asking for so long, and you have just answered my questions. I love the information. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot. I am a NY resident and a Morgan State Graduate. I have always loved Baltimore, and on a recent visit to West Baltimore, I became very concerned. The West Side appeared as if a national disaster had occurred and the neighborhood was left alone and forgotten about. I wanted to know how long it had been that way and if possible, what social/political events may have caused it. Thank you so much for painting a clearer picture of West Baltimore's beauty's as well as its social ills.

Spence said...

The national disaster you're referring to is called the "Road to Nowhere" the interstate era's worst casualty. Hopefully, as better mass transit comes to the area this will improve the area and the Highway to Nowhere will be no more.

Anonymous said...

I drive the "Road to Nowhere" every day and I prefer to keep it open.

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