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Young Urban Pioneers Want to Save Run Down Baltimore Neighborhood - 2003-12-03


Seven men and women in their twenties are saving Baltimore, Maryland. At least that's what they say. They have bought once-grand row houses on a street in a rundown, dangerous neighborhood - and not as absentee investors. They're actually moving in, amidst the boarded-up buildings, graffiti-covered walls, and rat-infested alleys strewn with trash.

Welcome to Reservoir Hill . . . "One of Baltimore's historic and resurgent communities. Known for its beautiful nineteenth-century architecture and close proximity to one of the largest urban parks in America, Reservoir Hill is quickly becoming 'the place' to call home," says a woman reading a promotional pitch.

That's how the city touts the neighborhood in a promotional brochure. But here's the true-to-life description: "You can still see some crack [cocaine] vials on the ground that I guess were thrown here. Oh here, here we go. This house next to us is empty, so in the middle of the night, someone can do anything they want to do over here," says 27-year-old Adam Meister, a wiry, spirited Internet entrepreneur, who is the ringleader of the Buy-a-Block movement in this old, hilltop neighborhood overlooking downtown Baltimore.

There are 50 or so units in the block on which he and six friends have bought Victorian row houses adorned with turrets and peaks, gables and columns. If you squint tightly, they look like soldiers lined smartly at attention. But wide open eyes behold plywood-covered windows, burned-out shells, high-intensity street lights, discarded wine bottles, and scrawled artwork with naive messages like, No Violence.

"If you look at this row of houses at night. I think mine is the only one that has a front porch light working. If you had six front porch lights instead of one, it makes a difference," explains Mr. Meister. "Every little change you make - and if you multiply it by six people making those changes - it creates a greater incentive for other people to say, 'Hey, if that guy's willing to do it, I'm willing to do it.' If it works here, it's going to happen in other areas, and it's going to spread to other parts of the city."

Like his friends, Adam Meister was living elsewhere, paying rent, and admiring Reservoir Hill, where his Jewish ancestors, downtown merchants who were not welcome to live near their stores, built elegant homes. Most of those spacious houses were converted to multiple apartment units when Baltimore swarmed with dockworkers during World War II, but some of the old homey touches survived. On a door frame in Adam Meister's apartment, there's a scroll called a mezuzah that dates to the house's ceremonial dedication 100 years ago.

"I'm sure those people, when they moved out of here, didn't think there'd ever be Jewish people on this block again. And lo and behold, it's happened," he says. "If someone said, 'Hey, you're an outsider here,' I can say, 'You see that mezuzah in my room? That's been here eighty years, longer than anybody's been alive on this block.'"

Almost overnight during the rioting and white flight that followed the assassination of civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, Reservoir Hill became a black enclave - a higher-class ghetto than the public-housing wastelands elsewhere in town, but a ghetto nonetheless. Other than police and real estate speculators, who long talked up Reservoir Hill as the next happening neighborhood that never happened, Adam Meister and his friends became the first whites to venture back into the neighborhood in more than a generation. For $20,000 to $50,000, they purchased houses that would cost $200,000 in fancier parts of town.

Tugboat engineer Lenny Bonarek and his wife Lena bought the place across the street. The roof had collapsed, and water had ruined the floors, so they're gutting the house. Six or seven times already, someone has broken in to steal fixtures or construction supplies. But Mr. Bonarek says he and Lena persist.

"When you go into a neighborhood like this, people meet you with - to say the least - skepticism, ranging on upward to outright hostility. But people here were friendly with me," he says. "And then when they realized I was buying a home and wanting to live there, they were just beaming with enthusiasm and 'Welcome to the neighborhood,' and so that really just set me at ease. This place IS teeming with degenerates. But the people who live here are just as much victimized by that as everybody else is. I came into the area thinking I'm, like, surrounded by the enemy. But it really wasn't like that at all."

Turkish immigrant Cem Ari is another "Reservoir Hill ribby," as Adam Meister calls the group of urban homesteaders. Ribby is short for risk-taking young Baltimoreans.

"Going into a neighborhood together and being able to support each other, and working for the same idea, working for the same will, is a strength, I think - just creating a better idea for Baltimore," he says.

You won't find any big grocery stores nearby. Or trendy coffee houses or clothing stores. The city boarded up the abandoned commercial strip in the area ten years ago to keep out crack-cocaine dealers.

On Mr. Meister's website (Techbalt.com) twenty or so other individuals or couples have said they're close to jumping in as well. Others, from Detroit and New Orleans and elsewhere, write to ask how they, too, can start a Buy-a-Block movement. But Mr. Meister admits some enthusiasts who've actually seen the neighborhood are, in his words, probably a little scared and are slowing down their commitment.

As Adam Meister gives a tour of his faded architectural masterpiece, we climb the back fire escape to admire the distant grandeur of Baltimore. But you also notice something closer: a sign, pasted to the third-floor door.

Such images have not deterred the seven people who have moved onto this street so far. They say they're confident that what they call a critical mass of enthusiastic new homeowners moving into at least half the houses on the block is achievable. They're not blockbusters, they emphasize - rich white folks wanting to kick out black families to jack up property values. The Ribbies who are putting their money, and some would say, their lives, on the line in Reservoir Hill say actual homeowners on the street are treasured neighbors whom they hope will stay. It's the transients and crack dealers and prostitutes, they say, who have no place in their grand plan to save Baltimore.

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