In Clifton Park, Battling Urban Blight is Uphill Fight


The 2700 block of Tivoly Avenue is, to the casual observer, a ghost town. More than 90 percent of the homeowners and renters have fled the drug and crime-ridden block, receiving relocation awards and property settlements upwards of $200,000.

A block away, there are signs of progress. A new, glass-enclosed recreation center is under construction on the outskirts of the neighborhood. Golfers enjoy 18 holes at Clifton Park Golf Course overlooking the Charm City skyline.

But for the other eight to 10 families still living on Tivoly, the quality of life they used to enjoy is an elusive dream.

“I feel let down when I talk about the community,” said William Alexander. “I use to come out and clean from top to bottom. You could walk through the alley with no shoes on.”

Alexander’s mother has been a tenant in a two-story, three-bedroom house in the 2700 block of Tivoly Avenue for nearly 30 years. He said he has watched the neighborhood decline from a clean, friendly, Black middle-class neighborhood in the 1960s and 1970s into a thinly-occupied street where drug dealers openly ply their trade, neat yards have given way to clumps of trash and scampering household pets have been replaced by scurrying rodents.

Change, however, is coming, if city officials have their way. On March 20, with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke and other local officials watching, seven of the vacant homes on the block were leveled by a city-sponsored wrecking crew.

The demolition is a part of the Coldstream Homestead Montebello Redevelopment Plan, said Mark Washington, executive director of the Coldstream Homestead Montebello Community Corporation (CHMCC). In 2006, the plan identified the 2700 blocks of Tivoly, Hugo and Fenwick avenues as a “long neglected, undervalued area” that is ripe for redevelopment.

If the plan succeeds, blighted housing will be replaced with homes valued close to $200,000. And, the plan predicted, 150 to 175 permanent new jobs will be available.

But first, there will have to be relocation, acquisition and demolition of the 2700 blocks of Tivoly-Hugo-Fenwick destroying nearly 300—mostly vacant– units and attracting builders, Washington said.

So far, the city has allocated $3.6 million of the city’s federally-funded redevelopment money for the acquisition and demolition of Tivoly Avenue and is considering adding another $2 million to the venture.

“Absentee landlords, crime, drugs and predatory lending caused this problem,” said Washington, who has spent most of his life as a Clifton Park resident.

Recently, CHMCC has been receiving assistance from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s Vacants to Value (V2V) program, which is aimed at eliminating urban blight in Baltimore through rehabilitating or demolishing vacant buildings in the city.

“The demolition stabilizes the community and creates room for redevelopment,” said Cheron Porter, director of communications for Baltimore Housing. “Blighted properties create criminal behavior… It’s not a healthy place. It doesn’t help anyone’s property value.”

Through the federal Uniform Relocation Act, a 1970 law which, while using eminent domain to seize some properties, also compensates tenants, home owners and merchants in blighted areas who are displaced in the name of federally-funded redevelopment, V2V created relocation packages for some owners and tenants on Tivoly Avenue.

Renters received three months of paid rent, moving expenses and assistance in finding replacement property with comparable square footage. Building owners were paid $100,000 to $200,000 for their properties, along with relocation expenses.

“Initially there was a lot of doubt and skepticism,” Washington said, noting that residents of the block would be treated fairly in the transition. “It was paramount to the community organization that owner-occupants be treated extremely fairly and have the opportunity to be made whole and not find themselves in a worse situation than before.”

But there are bumps in the road to redevelopment. Alexander is ready for change but his landlord wants different terms. According to a search through the Maryland Department of Assessment and Taxation, Alexander’s home is owned by SS5 Business Trust. The property is currently valued at $12,000 through July 1, a valuation shared by most of the houses in that area.

But Alexander’s landlord, he said, threatened to sue “if we break our lease before the settlement.” He said the landlord is in court currently trying to extract a larger settlement from the city. Representatives of SS5 Business Trust could not be reached for comment.

Alexander said he hopes to move soon to a more community-oriented neighborhood where his mom can garden and relax.

There are success stories, though. Fewer than three miles up Harford Road, Alexander’s former neighbor Olive Stewart, 67, who raised two children and lost her husband on Tivoly Avenue, now lives in a five bedroom home on Echodale.

She purchased the home with $200,000 she received from the city for her property.

“I’m sorry [my husband] didn’t live to see this move,” said Stewart who was fed up with Tivoly Avenue. “You would come in from work and you couldn’t sleep. They would set up basketball courts and play music all times of night. No matter how you fixed up your place, you didn’t even want your friends and family to come visit.”

She and her husband lived next door to a vacant house more than 20 years, going back to former Mayor Kurt Schmoke’s administration, said Stewart. The growing blight in the neighborhood caused Stewart’s insurance company to cancel her policy stating she was a high-risk client. Her homeowner's insurance had increased to $1,900 a year before they relocated.

Today, Stewart has a huge backyard with a clean alley and friendly neighbors, one of whom she said brought her a potted plant as a housewarming gift.

“I love my new neighborhood,” said Stewart.

 

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In Clifton Park, Battling Urban Blight is Uphill Fight

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