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Mobtown Beat

Upton Downs

Community Group Launches Master Plan for Struggling Neighborhood

Frank Klein
No Vacancy: Theresa Stephens, president of the Upton Planning Committee, hopes the neighborhood's new master plan will return Upton to its former status as a vibrant, viable community.

By Jill Yesko | Posted 9/29/2004

In its heyday, the Upton neighborhood was celebrated as the “Harlem of Baltimore,” a testament to the plethora of jazz and blues clubs as well as its cohesive African-American community. Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice, grew up on Division Street, while the Afro American, one of the oldest African-American newspapers in the nation, was published in Upton until 1996. Named for a Greek Revival home on Lanvale Street, the Upton neighborhood occupies a wedgelike swath west of Bolton Hill and south of North Avenue.

Today, like many other inner-city neighborhoods, this once vibrant neighborhood is facing its share of challenges. Boarded-up houses, graffiti, drugs, a paucity of stable businesses, and a lack of visibility on most Baltimoreans’ radar screens have all contributed to Upton’s lingering in the backwater of urban-renewal efforts.

“Much of Upton is at a place where it’s waiting for the right development,” says Theresa Stephens, president of the Upton Planning Committee and a longtime community resident. “Upton must no longer be viewed as a crime-infested thoroughfare to travel through but as a vibrant destination.”

Stephens’ words echo her dedication to seeing Upton’s decline reversed. Earlier this year, the Upton Planning Committee unveiled its long-awaited master plan, which Stephens hopes will finally give the community the financial and emotional boost it needs. Two years in the making, the master plan calls for sweeping changes to the neighborhood that include revitalizing businesses and reviving entertainment centers along the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor; developing a marketing campaign targeted to highlighting the community’s African-American heritage; preserving existing housing stock, especially the elegant homes in Upton’s Marble Hill section; “greening” up the community; and doing away with many one-way streets that encourage drivers to zoom through residential neighborhoods.

While this may seem like a tall order for a community where the median household income is $14,487 and where unemployment tops 20 percent according to the 2000 U.S. Census, community leaders such as Jules Dunham are undeterred.

“There hasn’t been a community plan in place for over 35 years,” notes Dunham, president of Jul Enterprise, an Upton-based development consulting firm. With more than 35 churches located within Upton’s borders—including the influential Bethel AME Church—the involvement of the faith community is critical to the success of Upton’s plan, Stephens says. “The churches are the strongest asset that our community has. [Upton residents] draw on community services already in place from our churches.” Those community services include preschool and day care, after-school programs, and community outreach services for needy residents.

Still, neighborhood leaders acknowledge that it may take more than a leap of faith to breathe new life into Upton. One of the prime focuses of Upton’s master plan calls for developing mixed-income housing and encouraging first-time homeowners to purchase and renovate properties.

“We’re trying to emulate the success of Reservoir Hill,” Dunham says. Like neighboring Reservoir Hill, Upton contains a plentiful inventory of elegant vacant homes, many badly in need of extensive renovation. Stephens says the city has acquired more than 40 percent of Upton’s abandoned properties, a figure she hopes will rise to 70 percent. “We’ve also discussed starting a dollar-home program and a Nehemiah Program,” Dunham adds, referring to a privately funded nonprofit that offers down-payment assistance for low- and middle-income families. Stephens says she also hopes that both residents and outsiders will become “homesteaders” in Upton’s Marble Hill section, an area once likened to Harlem’s sophisticated Sugar Hill.

One type of housing that both Dunham and Stephens hope to avoid is large-scale projects such as the recently opened Heritage Crossing: a sprawling, 260-home development in the southwest corner of Upton that replaced the aggrieved George B. Murphy Homes, one of the city’s most neglected high-rise housing projects. While the Murphy Homes were far from ideal, Stephens says that massive developments like Heritage Crossing—no matter how well-intended—are antithetical to the kind of community building that the writers of the Upton Master Plan hope to foster in the community. “While Heritage Crossing is appreciated, it’s just not the model we’re looking for,” she says.

Another major focus of the master plan calls for a major push to market Upton’s African-American heritage. Once the locus of Upton’s famed entertainment district, Pennsylvania Avenue was also the heart of Upton and the neighboring Penn North’s pulsing shopping district. Large theaters like the 1,400 seat Douglass Theater featured headliners such as Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters, Eubie Blake, and Louis Armstrong. The Royal Theatre was once a major stop along the “chitlin’ circuit,” which also included Harlem’s Apollo Theater.

Today the once-grand “Avenoo” is a hodgepodge of sneaker shops and dollar stores. The Avenue Market, run by the Baltimore Public Markets Corp., at the center of Pennsylvania’s commercial district, does offer occasional jazz concerts, but a majority of the vendor stalls are vacant. Over the years, active drug dealing on the streets has taken a bite out of Upton’s commercial district, a problem acknowledged in the master plan.

“We see this [Pennsylvania Avenue] as being a hustling, bustling corridor with a lot of eateries and music,” Dunham says. “We hope it will return to its heyday.” Among the improvements Dunham envisions is erecting historical markers along Upton’s streets and creating walking tours emphasizing the neighborhood’s African-American heritage. The master plan would also develop a marketing campaign targeted specifically to young black professionals encouraging them to visit and eventually to settle in Upton.

Dunham acknowledges that it will take more than good intentions to help Upton reach its potential. To that end, she estimates that it will cost a minimum of $260,000 to jump-start the master plan. Last year, the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development allocated $50,000 for the Upton Master Plan Committee to develop a community land-use plan, says David Levy, assistant commissioner for land resources for the agency.

In July, the Upton Planning Committee, in conjunction with the city housing agencies, solicited its first round of requests for proposals to bidders with the hope of generating money and interest in renovating homes in Upton. Levy says the city has short-listed six developers for the slated redevelopment, which will be known as Upton West. Once the developers are selected, the next step, Levy says, will be to hold community presentations to introduce the plans to the public.

Whether or not all of the elements of the Upton Master Plan can be accomplished remains to be seen. Still, for this struggling community, every effort toward its goal is a reason to celebrate. “This has been a spiritual journey for the community,” says Theresa Stephens says, standing outside Bethel AME Church. “We’re at the beginning.”

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