When my wife and I moved to Baltimore a year-and-a-half ago, we had no specific plans. Within two months, we had bought a home. Our 800 SF rowhouse was built in 1901. We got it for a song in a rough, but steadily improving area. Because of widespread vacancy due to terrible economic conditions in the 90’s many parts of the city have a population much smaller than what they were built to accommodate. The houses on both sides of us were also empty, as were 37 others on the four blocks of our tiny street.
We quickly made friends, however, some of whom were doing exactly what we are doing. We had many decisions to make very quickly. Because many of the water pipes in our area are many of terra cotta and even wood, some over 200 years old, we got a bathroom and kitchen water filter installed. This was not a purchase that we initially agreed upon, but I’ve been very happy to have it since. We then had to remove old carpet, wood paneling, plaster walls and ceilings, and many other surfaces that had accumulated over the previous century to cover the original pinewood floor and gorgeous brick. Both were in great (thank God) condition.
A year in, we have finally moved into the upstairs bedroom, after months of living on a mattress in the kitchen. The upstairs is largely complete, and we spend a lot of time there, but the rest of the house had a lot of challenges that we will face as funds and motivation allow.
I could say a lot more about the actual rehab process, but I want to talk a little bit about how the house has changed our lives in ways we didn’t anticipate.
I believe in rehabs like this, because there is little to no new construction. We sometimes have pricey repairs, but in general the house is the same one it has always been. Also, by buying something old and, from an outside perspective, undesirable, we set ourselves up to be mortgage-free in just a few years. This has given us the freedom to give some of our attention to the neighborhood at large.
On our little street, some of our friends bought an old business space to turn into a food Co-op. There’s a community garden on the corner I work at a few days a week. Most of the food gets walked off with, but the greenery adds an important dimension to our narrow, treeless street. It’s worth it to me whether I get produce out of it or not. The church the next block over has regular free reading lessons for neighborhood kids, a thrift store for the homeless, and free food to be had for all.
Someone reading this far could easily group my story in with countless other gentrification tales. On one level I understand this, but I am starting to see how our Baltimore neighborhood may be exceptional. For one thing, it is still so largely abandoned. Far from being pushed out, a low income, racially diverse, and long-term neighbors have seemed overwhelmingly happy that these disused spaces are being brought back to life. I don’t see as many people selling heroin on the street as I did a year ago. For another thing, there is also a prevailing culture of community-mindedness here, one that new additions like me and my wife are able to jump right into, rather than usurp.
I love Baltimore, and I could talk about it all day, but many American cities are in similar situations. St. Louis and Detroit come to mind. New homeowners of cheap and distressed properties have the opportunity not only to build for themselves a wonderful home, but also to rehabilitate culture. By promoting the general good in the neighborhood you find yourself, you can work to be, not a force of gentrification, but a force of cultivation. I look forward to seeing more people take up this challenge in Baltimore, but I hope the force takes hold nationwide.