Won't you be my neighbor?
On a clear day, all of Baltimore is visible from Adam Meister's flat roof. So are trashed alleys and boarded-up row houses. But where others may see ghosts of a happier time in the city's history, he sees resurrection.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Meister is the founder of a grass-roots campaign to revitalize the city - or for starters, at least one block of it. For two years he's been hosting a website, passing out fliers, and working closely with a core group of people interested in buying and rehabilitating neglected houses on a targeted block.
It's largely about the quest for affordable housing. But Meister's vision is much broader. The 27-year-old wants to reverse Baltimore's brain drain, appealing to hometown pride and introducing the city to people who, like him, grew up in its suburban "islands." He calls it the Rybby generation - Risk-taking Young Baltimoreans - but his buy-a-block campaign is also attracting empty nesters, a constituency he hadn't considered before.
"You know, like in 1967 when everybody went to San Francisco to protest war - we've got a war going on here on our own soil," Meister says, his eyebrows arching as revolutionary zeal flashes across his face. "People could put their bodies on the line by living here. I can see it like a movement - people moving to Baltimore."
The war imagery might stem from the fact that he just spent his first night in the three-story building he bought in October. There's a new alarm system and plenty of locks on the doors, but he keeps a metal baseball bat nearby. Break-ins and drug deals are a regular topic of conversation among homeowners here.
With four houses bought by members of his group so far, and another two in negotiation, Meister's dream is slowly becoming reality. But it's not happening in a vacuum. The city is in the midst of Project 5000, an effort to reclaim abandoned properties and get them into the hands of new owners and developers. Restrictions on suburban construction here and closer to Washington, D.C., are prompting more house shoppers to consider Baltimore proper. And with violent crime down about 30 percent since Mayor Martin O'Malley was elected in 1999, there's hope for reversing a longstanding pattern of flight from the city.
"People are looking at vacant houses - formerly looked on as blight - as opportunity," says Bob Embry, president of the Abell Foundation in Baltimore. "But to privately put together a group of people ... is unique, as far as I know. They're going into a neighborhood that has signs of resurgence but is far from being totally revitalized, so it is a bit of a risk."
The neighborhood is Reservoir Hill. It doesn't have a grocery store or much else in the way of businesses and amenities. But it does have residents who care. For any urban revitalization effort to be successful, experts say, it's crucial to remember the people who are already there.
"Sometimes too many of us will see an area that is dilapidated and assume that ... people living within that area really don't have the motivation to change [it], and that's always a mistake," says James Jennings, a professor of urban policy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "A vision like this [buy-a-block campaign] could be very empowering if it works with residents. If this becomes a strategy to displace people, then it really is a problem."
Recent home buyer Lenny Bonarek couldn't agree more. "I think it's pretty condescending for us to think that we're going to bring some sense of community here," he says, his denim overalls covered with a thin layer of wallboard dust. He and his wife bought a building last spring and are rehabbing it, temporarily living in the third-floor unit of Meister's place.
"There's a woman, my alley-neighbor, who's been here for 45 years," says Mr. Bonarek. "She's raised six wonderful law-abiding children, and she has grandchildren and everything else that she built when this neighborhood was good. And she refused to leave when it became bad. I'd say ... 30 percent of the people living here are owners - for more than 20 years."
No one in Meister's group wants to turn their block into "the next Bolton Hill," a nearby pocket of relative wealth with a median home price of $203,000, compared with $55,000 in Reservoir Hill. (Bonarek and Meister spent $15,000 and $41,000 respectively.) But they do believe more people need to start fixing up houses to create a critical mass of owner-occupied units. "The people living here are not enough to really successfully combat all the things that are going on," Bonarek says.
Safety in numbers is part of what inspired Meister's idea. When he wanted to start his own tech business after a successful stint at the height of the dotcom days, he moved from California back to Baltimore in search of a cheap place to live. He saw urban neighborhoods with so much potential, but moving there on his own was intimidating. "I was like, wait a second, I'd get eaten alive here," he says. That's when he decided to try to "form a neighborhood association before [we were] in a neighborhood."