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Baltimore, like many older cities in America, has a problem with vacant houses that often stretch on for blocks, creating urban blight that depresses property values, stymies redevelopment efforts and serves as a hub for crime.In this series, WYPR examines the issues behind the problem and the efforts to find solutions.Deconstructing Vacants is made possible by a grant from the Goldseker Foundation.00000176-770f-dc2f-ad76-7f0fae570000

Trying to Beat Back the Blight on North Avenue

North Avenue, possibly the longest, straightest east-west street in Baltimore, provides a snapshot of how urban blight affects the city.

Once a bustling strip of shops, businesses and homes, it is now a crime-ridden jumble of deserted, crumbling buildings with pockets of life scattered in between.

Ninety year old Philip Brown--who opened the Uptown Barber Shop near North Avenue and Bloomingdale Road back in the 50s and is still cutting hair--says the street had it all back then.

“It had [two movie theatres] on the block.  Next door you had a supermarket and a bar where you can eat lunch and things of that sort.”

Six decades later, the blight begins near Brown’s barber shop and continues almost a mile east to the campus of Coppin State University and beyond. It’s broken only by the newly built North Avenue Gateway apartment complex, directly across the street from a block of abandoned properties with boarded up windows, broken windows, no windows, sagging roofs and in some instances no roofs.

A row of vacants faced the school’s main entrance on North and Thomas Avenues until the school demolished them in late 2012 to make way for a new science building scheduled to open in 2015.

Whether the blight has had an effect on Coppin State’s ability to recruit students is hard to say.  School officials failed to respond to interview requests in time for this story.

Kirk Crowley - president of the board of trustees for the Coppin Heights Community Development Corporation - says that while some new construction has taken place in the community, residents haven’t seen the benefits.

“I think there’s a consensus in the community that there’s not been active participation in the development of those areas that are of interest to the community itself,” he says.

Gretchen Spell, executive director of the corporation, says many longtime residents want to see the blight gone.

“We have residents here that have lived here for 20,30,40,50 even 60 years,” she says. “They want to feel safe.”

But they don’t. They’ve identified Poplar Grove Avenue, a north-south connector halfway between Brown’s shop and Coppin, with dozens of vacants, as a drug haven.  The Greater Rosemont and Mondawmin Area Master Plan, GRAMA, called North Avenue a magnet for crime.

City Planning Director Tom Stosur says the plan, adopted in 2012, includes many ideas of past revitalization plans and more.

“I think we were able to be more inclusive of other partners being part of this plan and really working with those anchors such as Mondawmin Mall and Coppin State University,” Stosur says.

The plan envisions stimulating revitalization by locating some Coppin facilities along North Avenue to attract businesses and residents.  It also calls for improving MTA service and making the area greener with trees and garden plots on vacant lots.

Stosur says the plan relies on the cooperation of the community and its anchors like Coppin State and Mondawmin Mall.

“[They] not only provides the jobs but it also brings new people into the city and into these specifics neighborhoods,” he adds.

Coppin State is also part of the city’s Anchor Plan which hopes to revitalize neighborhoods around “eds and meds;” Baltimore’s higher learning and medical institutions.  Coppin shares it’s anchor area with Bon Secours Hospital, two miles away on West Baltimore Street.