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Mobtown Beat

Point of No Return

It's All Over but the Shouting for Wagner's Point

By Michael Anft | Posted 2/16/2000

Andy Skrzecz can feel the end coming. After spending all his 65 years on Leo Street—where he was born, got married, and raised four kids—it's time for Skrzecz to pack up and leave. Soon enough, the bulldozers will come to tear down a lifetime of memories.

"I don't want to see that," he says from his small but comfortable rowhouse, one of the last of Wagner's Point's 93 homes to be occupied. "No—it would be too painful."

Those memories are bittersweet, to say the least. Skrzecz can recall the joys of the Wagner's Point of his youth, a recreational haven where crabbing and fishing were part of daily life. But he's also watched as the neighborhood changed from a remote "cannery town" to a tiny enclave dwarfed by hulking oil and chemical tanks. He's watched friends die from cancer, which community activists blame on their industrial neighbors. He's lived through the pain of watching his wife, Jeanette Skrzecz, one of the most vocal and tireless of those activists, succumb to the disease two years ago at age 56.

Jeanette Skrzecz, the initial driving force behind the push for a city buyout of the polluted neighborhood, didn't live long enough to see Wagner's Point's homes condemned under city eminent-domain laws last year. And while his wife couldn't wait to flee the community, Andy Skrzecz has been in no hurry to leave. He has been looking at homes in nearby Brooklyn, he says, but adds, "I've been here my whole life, so I ain't rushing."

As the city continues to purchase rowhouses in the community to make way for the expansion of the Patapsco Sewage Disposal Plant, it appears that as Wagner's Point slowly but surely becomes a ghost town, its last residents will be some of those who have lived there the longest. Louise Regiec, 74, was born and raised here. Skrzecz mentions another neighbor across an alley from his house who's been here more than 50 years. The three Smith brothers, lifelong Wagner's Pointers in their 30s who fought the buyout because of the impact it would have on their pigeon-raising business, have yet to move on. When they do make the trip, their father, Herbie Smith, won't be joining them; he died from emphysema last month in a rowhouse two doors from Skrzecz.

Even though Regiec and a few other elderly neighbors have children willing to take them in or help them relocate, Skrzecz understands their reluctance to move. "You live in one place all your life and you wonder if you can call anyplace else home," he says. But after years of fighting the city for a buyout, he says he's done well by the condemnation process. Skrzecz received $50,000 for his home. "I paid $5,000 for it," he says with a smile. In addition, he received $21,500 in relocation expenses and expects to get $1,500 to cover the cost of moving. He plans to tap into a state fund that provides 5-percent mortgage loans for Wagner's Pointers and, like many of his older neighbors, he'll apply for a $10,000 federal grant to cover closing costs and other expenses.

Outside Skrzecz's neatly kept home, much of the rest of the neighborhood is, predictably enough, a wreck. "Kids have broken out much of the windows," he says. "Of course, there aren't many kids left now." Only a few houses have been boarded up; Skrzecz says city officials told him it wasn't a priority: "They say, 'Why bother? We'll just be tearing them down anyway.' I boarded up the place next door myself. You get kids in there smoking cigarettes, and the next thing you get is a fire. Where would that have left me [before settling with the city] if my house caught fire?"

Across the street from Skrzecz's, the former home of Richard Rotosky still features the pro-buyout window signs—WE WANT OUT; HELP! SAVE OUR FAMILIES!—that once dominated the neighborhood. Atop an awning, a strategically placed and tattered American flag makes its own statement. The former home of activist Rose Hindla sits open to the elements, its floor replete with cat feces and old Christmas cards, some homemade. The house's metal piping has been ripped out by scrap scavengers. Only the front door of one house in the 3600 block of Leo Street, festooned with Valentine's Day decorations, bucks the notion of abandonment.

The next step for the city is to finish buying up the homes, many of which are still privately owned, if empty. "We've settled with more than half of them," says Zack Germroth, spokesperson for the Department of Housing and Community Development. "There's no real timetable" for moving everyone out, he adds, though Skrzecz says he's been told to get out by May, a request he believes he can meet despite his feet of clay.

Although he won't return to see his lifelong home meet the wrecking ball, Skrzecz says he'll make sure to take part of the neighborhood with him. He'll dig up a bit of the hedge that once surrounded the former St. Adalbert's Church on Leo Street—and which now survives in patches around the area's lone playground—and replant it when he moves. Same with a cutting from the 10-foot-high entanglement of rose bush that dominates his small backyard and in the summer sports delicate white flowers, some pockmarked by soot or what he believes to be chemical residue. Hordes of sparrows and starlings that have come to know him over the years have made that bush their home. "I'll miss the birds the most," he says, tossing them food from a large paper grocery bag. "They really love popcorn."

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