Friday, April 11, 2014

Recreating the Bottom

By the middle of the 20th Century it seems that almost every Neighborhood that encroached Downtown was nothing but slums. And when I say Slums I mean chronic over crowding, lack of indoor plumbing, and lack of HVAC. In addition to the buildings being in shambles Residents were destitute. At the time it seemed that the right thing to do would be demolish these slums and build what was then considered modern public housing. It worked for a few years however, the same problems began to resurface soon after.
I've told that story a million times on this blog and I choose not to bore you with it once again. This time I'm going to talk about a forgotten section northwest of Downtown and southeast of Upton. It crosses the blurred line between Upton and Seton Hill. It was known as the "Bottom." In Upton there are many historical Buildings that were home to Baltimore's African American Elite primarily in the Marble Hill District and/or along Pennsylvania Avenue above Dolphin St. The Bottom was the area below Dolphin St. that was over-crowded and housed Baltimore's African American working class and working poor. Given the area's lack of resources, the Bottom fell into disrepair as Neighborhood Boundaries didn't expand despite the great migration.
So what and where is the Bottom today? Today the bottom includes McCulloh Homes, State Center(pictured above), Orchard St. Mews, and Heritage Crossing (pictured above). During the slum clearance of the mid 20th Century, Murphy Homes occupied the land that is now home to Heritage Crossing. More on that later. There are currently plans on the books to redevelop State Center into a high density mixed use TOD haven. If done correctly it will fill the void in between the sought after Neighborhoods of Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon. 
Located just west of State Center is McCulloh Homes(pictured above), a public housing project that is in dire need of reinvestment if not a complete redevelopment. Some of Upton's most prized streets run through McColloh Homes; Pennsylvania Avenue, Druid Hill Avenue, and McCulloh St. East of MLK Boulevard which was not in existence when the Bottom was lies Orchard Street Mews. Orchard Street Mews is located in Seton Hill and is a Garden Apartment Complex whose buildings are in now where near as bad a shape as McCulloh Homes but stick out like a sore thumb when compared to the beautiful housing stock that has been handsomely rehabbed over the years. It should also be noted that Seton Hill is flanked with a plethora of trees, gardens, and parks.
Recently I wrote an article more or less celebrating the move of Social Security from its fortress (pictured above) on the edge of Downtown just south of the Bottom. I talked about the endless possibilities of redevelopment and how that section and surrounding areas can improve by leaps and bounds. One aspect I didn't touch upon was recreating the Bottom. Although the Bottom can be recreated without the redevelopment of the Social Security Fortress, I think doing so will create a synergy of development dollars will hopefully flood the area. 
So where and how do we begin recreating the bottom? First it's time to redevelop McCulloh Homes and Orchard Street Mews. McCulloh Homes is a no brainer given its high vacancy rate and the astronomically high cost it would be to renovate and modernize that whole complex. Originally the State Center redevelopment project included McCulloh Homes but Residents successfully nixed that idea. These days however, conditions at McCulloh Homes have continued to deteriorate and it appears that the City is in no financial position to make the needed improvements. Demolition and selling off the land may be the only way to move forward.
As I said earlier, Orchard Street Mews are not in state of crisis like McCulloh Homes but their decidedly mid century urban renewal era appearance leaves much to the imagination. Given that Orchard Street Mews is the link between Downtown/Seton Hill and Upton/McCulloh Homes in order to create a stream lined "Bottom" they must be redeveloped as well. In the beginning of this post I hearkened back to the worn story of blighted slums being removed in the mid 20th century. One thing I didn't address which I will now is what some of the slums that were NEVER cleared and what they look like now. Today, they're some of Baltimore's most sought after Neighborhoods most notably Otterbein. It was cleared of Residents but never demolished because the path for I-95 was redirected and the $1 row house was born.
Could the Bottom have fared as well as Otterbein? If so could Upton's Marble Hill District have be as in demand as Federal Hill? These are answers we will never know. That being said, lets recreate the Bottom. Now that the land has been cleared it begs the question; What will go in place of McCulloh Homes and Orchard Street Mews? If you're thinking I'm going to put upscale mixed use high density Apartments with cookie Retail, you're wrong. The Bottom was never a high class glitzy area even in its heyday. It housed Baltimore's African American working class and working poor during a time when segregation gave them no other options on where to live.
A redeveloped Bottom will pay homage to that by providing affordable housing of all types to Baltimore's working class and working poor. Gone are the days of segregation so hopefully a culturally diverse Neighborhood will rise. The housing types will mimic the beautiful row homes in Neighboring Seton Hill, Bolton Hill, and Mount Vernon. Some of these new Row Homes will be Apartments and others will be a one Family dwelling. Some will be rentals while others will be sold to first time buyers below market value. Remember, the Bottom was never a wealthy enclave so celebrating its history would be to offer affordable housing. Unlike the original Bottom, the new Bottom will be flanked with all the modern amenities and will not be over crowded. These new Row Homes will be built with similar architectural details found in Seton Hill, Bolton, Hill and Upton's Marble Hill District to make it appear as if they've been here the whole time. The new Bottom will also contain an unprecedented amount of trees, gardens, and parks.
The original Bottom was once home to slums that housed Baltimore's African American working class and working poor. If recreated the "New Bottom" will house Working Families from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds and instead of slums will be tree lined row homes with all the modern amenities. I can't think of a better way to recreate the Bottom.

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