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Won't you be my neighbor?

(Page 2 of 2)

On his website - (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.

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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 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.' "