Walking up Collington Street toward its intersection with Biddle Street in east Baltimore, Ella Durant recalled what the neighborhood was like when she moved here years ago.
She worked to scare off drug dealers, she said, as well as to deal with “corrupt police.” For her troubles one of her cars had six bullet holes shot in it. A second car was shot twice.
On Friday, as she led a tour as part of the culmination of Community Development Week, Durant gushed about what the Collington Square neighborhood is becoming and the investments that have been made in the community.
“This is the most well-kept secret in Baltimore. After 8 p.m. you could hear a mouse tripping on cotton,” Durant said.
In recent years the area has gained momentum as formerly vacant industrial buildings in the area have attracted investment as adaptive reuse projects.
Cross Street Partners worked on the $24 million rehab of the old American Brewery building and turned it into a home for the nonprofit Humanim, which provides workforce training.
American Communities Trust has taken on the $23.5 million overhaul of a century-old pump station at Oliver and Wolfe streets. The organization plans to convert the property into the Baltimore Food Hub, which is expected to be fully leased and delivered in the spring of 2019.
The latest project is the ongoing transformation of the historic A. Hoen & Co. Lithograph building. Cross Street Partners, City Life Community Builders and nonprofit Strong City Baltimore, which will own the property, are partnering on the $26 million project converting the building into a mix of office, flex and retail space.
Johns Hopkins’ East Baltimore Development Inc. project, which includes a new office park, housing and renovation of Eager Park, is also providing momentum for the neighborhoods to the north.
But the area still faces stiff challenges as it tries to rebound from moribund urban decay into thriving communities.
The area is cut off from the rapidly improving neighborhoods to the south by Amtrak lines that create a series of underpasses, isolating such communities as Collington Square. Vacant properties remain a major nuisance, with 54 percent of homes in the area boarded up.
Entrenched poverty is another major hurdle. Fifty-six percent of working-age men in the community are unemployed, compared to roughly 4 percent statewide unemployment.
Groups attempting to breathe new life into the area are also trying to be cautious not to gentrify the community and displace existing residents. Ellen Burke, executive director of City Life Community Builders, said they envision some of the 700 families displaced by the EBDI project returning to that portion of east Baltimore as planned residential redevelopments are built.
Odette Ramos, executive director of the Community Development Network of Baltimore, said development efforts like the ones in east Baltimore have to make affordability a priority.
“It’s got to be intentional,” Ramos said.
But for residents like Durant the investment in these buildings, particularly the Hoen building, represents a long-sought win for her neighborhood.
“It’s a godsend,” she said.