Won't you be my neighbor?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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."

On his website - www.TechBalt.com (originally set up for people launching Internet businesses in Baltimore) - he has a virtual neighborhood-watch program, an area where people can report on drug dealing and crime. And he promotes that kind of activism for the whole city.

Lynn Burke and Paul Reyes are gutting a place just down the row from Meister's, and they'll move in this spring. All that's left of the original are the brick walls, wooden beams and floors, and a stairway with a beautiful banister. Ms. Burke, who works as a substance-abuse counselor, says living in Reservoir Hill will give her a better understanding of her clients' circumstances. Mr. Reyeswill be five minutes from his office, where he does real-estate law, including pro bono work for fellow home buyers on the block.

Residents are probably curious about the small clusters of white people who started showing up recently in an all-black part of the neighborhood, Burke says. A few comments with racial overtones have come their way on the street, but they say they're getting along well with the neighbors they've gotten to know so far.

Rudolph Whitebey is one neighbor who doesn't need anyone to tell him what's going on. Every week he sees strangers peering at buildings near the one his family has owned since the 1970s. Back then, "apartments were full up and down the block," he says, standing on his stoop and looking out at an empty corner park. Despite the cycle of crime, flight, and deterioration, he has stayed: "I was raised up in the city, and I have no reason to run from nothin' that I see."

It doesn't bother him if white suburbanites want to buy here, even though he's sure many current renters will get priced out. "It doesn't make me sad," he says "because only the strong survive.... If you don't apply yourself and do the research to get the job done, then you can't blame nobody but yourself." Still, he knows that for people working long hours to try to make ends meet, that's a tough demand.

However, city planners can make affordable housing a priority for such residents, experts say. "Abandonment is a tremendous problem nationwide ... and a lot of cities are promoting mixed-income now as a solution," but it's often a complex, slow-going endeavor, says Elise Bright, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington and author of "Reviving America's Forgotten Neighborhoods: An Investigation of Inner City Revitalization Efforts."

Meister found a frustrating level of red tape when he wanted to buy abandoned property from the city, so he tracked down a private landlord who was ready to sell.

For their part, Baltimore officials say they've been speeding up the process of turning property over to buyers. They are pursuing a mixed-income strategy for Reservoir Hill and recently drew 900 people for a tour of 15 properties the city owned there, all of which were sold. "The city is on the upswing in a big way," says David Levy, Baltimore's assistant commissioner for land resources. "The appreciation [in home values] has been incredible."

Part of the demand comes from Washington dwellers such as Julie Ernst and Cem Ari."The people are so different here - they actually say 'hi' and talk to you," Ms. Ernst says.

They found out about Meister's group last winter and moved here in October. "We wanted to create our own community - you can never feel the community in D.C.," says Mr. Ari, who plans to attend graduate school in Baltimore.

They paid about three times as much as Meister, but their place had been rehabbed eight years ago, and it's on a nearby block with more owner-occupied houses. Their home and Meister's are frequent pit stops for buyers who haven't yet installed plumbing in their gutted houses.

Often TechBalt.com members - even those who haven't bought in the neighborhood - will help tear down a wall or toss old insulation into a dumpster. "I'm really shocked that there are a number of people who come to help us Saturdays and Sundays," Burke says.

No one knows how the experiment will play out long-term. As Meister drives a reporter around the city, he points out a neighborhood with colorfully painted row houses and landscaping. "This is what our neighborhood could look like," he exclaims. Recently he's received e-mails from other cities, most notably Detroit, where people want to copy the buy-a-block idea.

In the meantime, Meister still has his own grandmother to convince. She recalls the days when she pushed a baby carriage around Druid Hill Park, Baltimore's central park. It's just blocks from Meister's neighborhood, once occupied by wealthy Jewish merchants. But beyond the zoo, the park doesn't draw much of a crowd these days. He hopes one day she'll feel comfortable taking a great-grandchild there. She scoffs at that idea; the city will never get better, she recently told him.

Even Meister was surprised by the confidence of his response: "I said to her, 'You'll see it with your own eyes. In your lifetime, you'll see it change.' "

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