Pigtown Ascending

Oct 12, 2015

The mural that welcomes visitors and recalls Pigtown's past.

Back in the day, pigs arrived in Charm City by train and hit the streets running on their way to the breakfast table.

They were doomed, of course. But they earned a measure of immortality.  The blue collar railroad and steel workers who lived here in those days started calling their neighborhood Pigtown.

A promising new day comes after years of unrealized hopes.  Senator Catherine Pugh, who has a shop here, calls Pigtown a hidden gem.  It certainly is a gateway to downtown, Orioles' Park and M&T Bank Stadium.

Pigtown is one of the seven Southwest Partnership neighborhoods.  With the nearby University of Maryland, Baltimore, the partnership aims to create new economic opportunity for small businesses, small companies and neighborhood young people in need of well-paying jobs; all pipe dreams in the past.

Before the partnership, says Pigtown Association president Richard Parker even good news collapsed under years of disappointment, doubt and cynicism.

Whatever it was, people would think, "Ahhh that's not happening," Parker recalled.  "The city's not going to give us any money.  You know that money's going to Roland Park.  It’s going to Harbor East, Fells Point.  That money's not coming here."

But that's changing.  Optimism flows from the numbers, Parker says.

"We're not in this fight alone anymore," he said. "Now we’ve got 6 more communities behind us.  We've got power players behind us."

And Pigtown Pride.

You could see it as "Bunny" Braxton walked up to a lottery agent the other day on Washington Boulevard. She was wearing a new Orioles t-shirt. Black and Orange, of course, with "Pigtown" in white letters across the back.

"We're proud here in Pigtown," Braxton said.

She grew up there, going to St. Jerome's Church school. It's the kind of hometown place a city needs, she says.  People are Baltimore friendly, and, she says, Pigtown was the "only one of the neighborhoods when I was growing up that was mixed."

It still is: about 47 percent black, 43 percent white and the rest an assortment of ethnic and national groups.

Brief moves toward a different, PR-driven name have failed.  A mural just off the boulevard shows pigs in full stride.  Welcome, they seem to say.

During the Freddie Gray upheaval, someone got on Facebook to say how depressing it must be to live in a place called Pigtown.  Debbie Dickerson rushed to her computer with a brief history lesson about the name, adding "We love being in Pigtown It's a microcosm of Baltimore."

She and her husband , Rob, are helping put the neighborhood on the upward trajectory predicted years ago but never quite happened.

They arrived before the Southwest Partnership was born. They were all-in from the start. They sold their house in Bolton Hill and moved in above their printing company.

Already they see progress in the bottom line: more printing orders from the university.

Their business is across the street from Pigtown Mainstreet, an organization focused on Washington Blvd. Ask anyone about Pigtown's prospects and you hear about Ben Hyman, Mainstreet’s 27-year-old majordomo.  Bringing back the old, nostalgic but thriving American main street, he says, is the key to neighborhood health.

You could hear and feel what he was talking about recently when thousands of visitors were in town for Shindig, a rock extravaganza in Carroll Park.

New restaurants are coming. Also a new dry cleaners, a sprightly neighborhood coffee shop called Café Jovial and Shaker's, a bar with a new cocktail honoring the Ravens called the "Purple Blitz."

Tasty Creations owner Alvin Eddins says he’s getting more regular and larger orders from the university – which has a million-dollars-a year catering budget. This would qualify as proof of the potential created by the hospital’s deep pockets.

Alvin Eddins sees progress on Washington Boulevard.

"It could be more vibrant down here," he said, "but, like I say, it’s on the upcoming."

The partnership wants to nurture small, even micro neighborhood businesses, hoping that the university and other new customers would make them viable.

Of course, new doesn’t mean crime free in any Baltimore neighborhood. Start-ups and new or old residents have to deal with crime even as they struggle for a foothold.

Kee-wit Catta, known as "Didi," runs Café Jovial.  People love her breakfast pizza and the coffee she prepares, mixing and matching various flavors.  Starting small businesses is always challenging and sometimes discouraging. For a while this summer customers could sit outside with their morning cuppa joe.

"When the weather is nice I open the back door and people sit there. But a month ago they took all my tables and chairs,” she says.

There's a new police substation on the boulevard. Unfortunately, the squad cars arrived after the furniture departed. At the same time, Didi seems to be in for the duration.

It’s the old – and the new – Pigtown resilience.

Pigtown's new champion is Dr. Jay Perman, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore.  He's on a mission.  Pigtown and the other six neighborhoods are the university's neighborhoods -- not some beaten down place known derisively to some as "the other side of MLK."

Mainstreet's Hyman, says the new mood and the new alliance change everything.

"One of the things I've learned is that these things don’t resolve themselves on their own.  It takes advocates," he says.

Richard Parker, the association's president, recalls that an expanded methadone clinic triggered the partnership.  It remains a sore spot.  But there is hope for a satisfactory resolution, he says.

"When there was no partnership there was no dialogue," he says.

He says there's a bit of back to the future here.

"What Pigtown is it's a cross between 1950's America and 2015 America.  It's still that sense of community, it’s still that sense of togetherness."

It's also the essence of Baltimore: No pretense, no PR just Pigtown Pride.  The people are the heart of it all.

A drive through Pigtown shows immediately why the university's Jay Perman sees it as the school's neighborhood.  Students and doctors and scientists are there making Perman's neighborhood lively.

"When you have people who care, everything rises," Dr. Perman says. "Safety gets better, schools get better, and we ought to strive together no matter who we are."

And when some of those people have power, authority and money everything might rise even faster.

Part Three of the series will deal with education and the partnership’s investment in young people.

This special series on the SW Baltimore Partnership is made possible with grant support from Patricia and Mark Joseph.