Riots rattle Baltimore homeowners, merchants key to urban revitalization

The rioting and looting this week in Baltimore has homeowners and merchants crucial to the city's ongoing revitalization efforts worrying that the violence may have a chilling effect on future investments.

For decades Baltimore has relied on newcomers willing to buy and rehabilitate dilapidated -- and often abandoned -- property to power the rebound of the city's more distressed neighborhoods.

But like in many mid-sized cities across America, the revival -- captured a decade ago with a simple one-word campaign, "Believe" -- is fragile.

Even residents in Baltimore's Otterbein neighborhood, a pioneer project in America's decades-long urban renewal effort, expressed dismay about the rioting that came perilously close to them this week -- and what might happen next.

"This was nothing like the 1968 riots when the city was burning. But last night was really distressing," Otterbein resident Jeff Lauren said on Tuesday, after a night of violence across the city that resulted in 20 police officers injured, dozens of people arrested, hundreds of vehicles damaged and a CVS pharmacy set ablaze.

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    While his neighborhood has seen positive change over the past several decades, other sections in the early stages of revitalization -- like Reservoir Hill or Station North -- may be more vulnerable to any chilling effect from this week's events.


    According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Baltimore has 16,000 vacant and abandoned properties, whose presence are a drag on the city's growth. Together with the state and federal governments, city officials have tried several approaches to addressing the glut, including streamlining efforts to turn the properties over to developers and work on "targeted" code enforcement (part of the city's "vacants to value initiative").

    A goal would be to replicate the successes of places like Otterbein.

    Lauren and wife Susan Leviton are original Otterbein owners -- winners of a city-run lottery in 1975 in which residents competed for the chance to pay a dollar for one of about 105 dilapidated homes.

    The neighborhood, nestled between what is now Oriole Park at Camden Yard and Harbor Place, the centerpiece of the city's modern revival, originally was targeted for demolition. But the lottery sale instead started what became the largest urban homesteading project in U.S. history.

    Lauren, who came to Baltimore in 1965 to attend Johns Hopkins University, recalled that the '68 riots were so bad that the Army had to come help the National Guard, which was activated on Monday night to again help restore calm.

    He and Leviton, both attorneys, say their Hanover Street home is now worth about $750,000.

    They expressed no plans to leave, but some concern.

    "It's really weird to now see the National Guard ringing Harbor Place. Fifty years later, not much has changed," Lauren said of the root causes of such unrest, sparked this time by the April 19 death of Freddie Gray, a black man who suffered a so-far unexplained spinal injury and died several days after being taken into police custody. While the rioting has come largely under control, following two nights of a police-enforced curfew, it's an open question whether the findings of an internal police report on the incident could re-ignite the unrest.

    Leviton proudly showed a photo album that includes the actual dollar they paid and pictures of the home when they bought it.

    "You had to have some imagination," she said, before adding, "Last night was really sad."

    Around the corner, retired professor James Slaughter and his wife said they moved from northern Virginia into a roughly $400,000 Otterbein home about a year ago.

    He says they love the neighborhood and city life. However, Slaughter also acknowledged being unnerved Saturday when he and other baseball fans were kept inside Orioles' stadium because of protests that eventually resulted in fights and damage to nearby businesses.

    "It's of concern," he said. "Anything that smacks of violence is unacceptable. I wouldn't call this an affluent neighborhood, but people have invested a lot of money."

    "For all intents and purposes, [the riots] were sparked by anger," he continued. "I'm somewhat fearful, but I understand. What happened Saturday night, that's close, two-and-a-half blocks away."

    Michael Glass, an urban geographer and professor of urban studies at the University of Pittsburgh, said Baltimore's fragile revitalization after a period of depopulation and shrinking industry is one that mirrors many of the nation's large and mid-sized cities. He said cities like Baltimore have been gentrifying certain neighborhoods like the Inner Harbor, but resentment can grow when others are perceived to be "left behind" or when poor residents can no longer afford to live in areas that suddenly become meccas to young professionals and upscale business.

    "I see that happening in Pittsburgh, and to a certain extent in Cleveland, in Baltimore -- the tension between the success and gentrification the city has gone through and the feeling that it is not being shared by everybody," Glass said.

    The fissures can be seen in full view when a city like Baltimore erupts in protest. Suddenly the poverty and despair -- and anger -- is no longer hidden away. That may have an effect on efforts by leaders to draw investment and new residents to the city, Glass added. "It has to be very difficult for community development [programs] to see these images played over and over on television. It feeds into a certain narrative and it can be very unfortunate."

    The worst of the Baltimore riots, protests and looting appeared to occur in the city's impoverished Sandtown neighborhood -- about three miles northwest of Otterbein but adjacent to the Reservoir Hill and Bolton Hill neighborhoods, where boarded-up row houses next to magnificent brownstones are a constant draw to urban revivalists.

    Despite the violence, largely calmed by Thursday by community leaders and an additional police presence, residents and merchants in those neighborhoods appeared committed to staying, or at least taking a long wait-and-see approach.

    "I bought this house for $80,000," said 39-year-old Sascha Wagner, standing outside her three-story home on Eutaw Place, in Reservoir Hill, as helicopters whirred overhead on Tuesday.

    "It listed for $140,000, but I waited it out for a year. I wanted to buy a house for not much money. ... It could go either way now and I'd still be happy."

    Just a few hundred feet from the heart of the riots and where Gray was taken into custody stands the William C. Brown Community Funeral Home.

    "It's sad what they're doing," said Chris Brown, whose father opened the business 39 years ago and was in the National Guard during the '68 riots.

    "He said he never thought it would come to this point again," said Brown, who still thinks the family business plays an important role in the community. "This definitely changes your approach to businesses. ... You want to empathize, but you have to be practical. We're going to go to a seniors building to get them to the grocery store. But we'll wait for things to calm down."'s Kelley Vlahos contributed to this report.