Signs of growth sprout in Johnston Square

City neigh­bor­hood starts to draw greater in­volve­ment

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Sarah Gantz

A lit­tle more than a decade ago, the Yel­low Bowl Restau­rant drew a broad cross-sec­tion of Bal­ti­more to Johnston Square, the im­pov­er­ished neigh­bor­hood boxed in be­tween the Jones Falls Ex­press­way, the Mary­land Pen­i­ten­tiary and Green Mount Ceme­tery.

Dur­ing evenings at the restau­rant, the city’s po­lit­i­cal elite, prison guards and neigh­bors home from work sat el­bow to el­bow, en­joy­ing what many con­sid­ered the best soul food in town.

“You could al­ways take the pulse of the com­mu­nity by the com­mu­nity that was gath­ered there,” said for­mer Mayor Kurt Schmoke, a loyal cus­tomer of one of the city’s first black-owned restau­rants. “Just the thought of those bis­cuits brings a smile to my face.”

All that’s left now of the Yel­low Bowl is the bright yel­low awning hang­ing over boarded-up doors along Green­mount Av­enue. The restau­rant closed in 2006, adding one more va­cant build­ing to a city

full of them.

While mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar re­de­vel­op­ment ef­forts be­gan trans­form­ing neigh­bor­hoods to the north and east years ago, Johnston Square has been wait­ing for its big break. The neigh­bor­hood’s in­aus­pi­cious lo­ca­tion, wedged be­tween the high­way, the prison and ceme­tery, has made at­tract­ing de­vel­op­ers par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing.

But now de­vel­op­ers are try­ing to par­lay re­vi­tal­iza­tion ef­forts around Penn Sta­tion to the north and near the Johns Hop­kins med­i­cal cam­pus to the east into new life for Johnston Square.

Non­profit TRF De­vel­op­ment Part­ners plans to over­haul at least 30 rentable and sal­able row­houses, to be priced for fam­i­lies that earn less than the me­dian area in­come. Charm City Mead­works is turn­ing a ware­house into a brew­ery and tast­ing room. A neigh­bor­hood park that was so over­grown that some for­got it ex­isted is get­ting a makeover. And the Yel­low Bowl is poised for a come­back: 37-year-old chef Heather Smith plans to turn it into restau­rant con­cept she calls global com­fort food with a teach­ing kitchen to train neigh­bors in ba­sic culi­nary skills.

If the wave of re­de­vel­op­ment march­ing down Green­mount Av­enue is done right, sup­port­ers say, it could re­vive the com­mu­nity, bet­ter con­nect it to the rest of the city and im­prove life for the peo­ple who stuck with the neigh­bor­hood through the years.

“Bal­ti­more is still deal­ing with a lot of the scars of dis­crim­i­na­tory hous­ing prac­tices,” said Ch­eryl Knott, a project man­ager with the Bal­ti­more Neigh­bor­hood In­di­ca­tors Al­liance at the Univer­sity of Bal­ti­more’s Jacob France In­sti­tute. “You didn’t have a lot of con­nec­tion 50, 60 years ago be­tween Mount Ver­non and any­thing on the other side of the Jones Falls.

“This is re­ally an op­por­tu­nity to en­sure that when this de­vel­op­ment comes in, when there’s new in­vest­ment, be­ing able to pro­tect and em­power and lift up the peo­ple who are there in­stead of dis­plac­ing them.” The neigh­bor­hood has a long way to go. One out of ev­ery three build­ings is va­cant, ac­cord­ing to TRF. The Green­mount East sta­tis­ti­cal area, which in­cludes Johnston Square, has the se­cond-high­est homi­cide rate in the city, and the third-low­est life ex­pectancy, 67.9 years, ac­cord­ing to the city health depart­ment. The me­dian house­hold in­come, $23,277, is lit­tle more than half the city me­dian, and al­most a quar­ter of res­i­dents are un­em­ployed — nearly twice the city rate.

The near­est gro­cery store is a bus ride away, and the lack of other ser­vices, such as phar­ma­cies, con­ve­nience stores and recre­ation for youth, has made it hard to en­tice new res­i­dents.

But the city is throw­ing its weight be­hind the neigh­bor­hood, ac­quir­ing va­cant prop­er­ties and parcel­ing them to­gether with hope of hand­ing them off to de­vel­op­ers. Of­fi­cials say the city has spent $10 mil­lion ac­quir­ing and de­mol­ish­ing prop­er­ties and sup­port­ing af­ford­able-hous­ing projects in Johnston Square over the past decade, and ex­pects to spend mil­lions more in the years ahead.

“This is a great neigh­bor­hood to in­vest in be­cause of the strength that has been re­al­ized in Green­mount West and Oliver,” said Wendi Red­fern, act­ing deputy com­mis­sioner for land re­sources at the city’s Depart­ment of Hous­ing & Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment. “It’s a nat­u­ral next phase to lever­age the in­vest­ment that’s al­ready been put in and knit it all to­gether.”

The neigh­bor­hood has some strengths, city Hous­ing Com­mis­sioner Michael Braver­man said. It’s an­chored by the St. Frances Academy, and has the at­ten­tion of a com­mu­nity-fo­cused de­vel­oper, TRF, and a neigh­bor­hood as­so­ci­a­tion com­mit­ted to shep­herd­ing in change.

“There’s ev­ery rea­son to be­lieve that the tra­jec­tory of Johnston Square will con­tinue on in the present trend,” Braver­man said. “A lot of that has to do with the part­ner­ship be­tween the city and the com­mu­nity.”

Regina Ham­mond has lived in the neigh­bor­hood for more than three decades. Four years ago, she rounded up her neigh­bors and formed Re­build Johnston Square, a group work­ing to re­vi­tal­ize the neigh­bor­hood. She says she wanted to be able to sit in her liv­ing room in peace, with­out wor­ry­ing about bored youths out­side tear­ing ev­ery­thing apart.

“I saw a lot of de­te­ri­o­ra­tion,” said Ham­mond, the group’s pres­i­dent. “We had a whole lot of kids with a whole lot of noth­ing to do ex­cept de­stroy things.”

The group started small, or­ga­niz­ing trash cleanup days and com­mu­nity meet­ings to en­cour­age neigh­bors to get in­volved, speak up about what they want and play a role in mak­ing it hap­pen.

With help from the city, the state and com­mu­nity sup­port or­ga­ni­za­tions, Re­build Johnston Square last year ap­plied for and re­ceived a $437,500 grant from the Na­tional Recre­ation and Park As­so­ci­a­tion and the Amer­i­can Plan­ning As­so­ci­a­tion to ren­o­vate Am­brose Kennedy Park.

The ren­o­va­tions, led by Bal­ti­more’s Parks & Peo­ple Foun­da­tion, in­clude re­pair­ing the pool’s splash pad, resur­fac­ing bas­ket­ball courts and in­stalling re­strooms.

The city is in the process of ac­quir­ing build­ings along East Chase and Val­ley streets, Braver­man said. The plan is to knock them down and ex­pand the park. The city es­ti­mates that ac­quir­ing the prop­er­ties will cost $1 mil­lion, to be paid for through the state’s Project CORE, an ini­tia­tive aimed at re­duc­ing blight.

“It’s go­ing to look 100 per­cent bet­ter than be­fore,” Ham­mond said.

Ham­mond said she is pleased to see the group’s years of hard work pay off and glad oth­ers are start­ing to re­al­ize the neigh­bor­hood’s as­sets she’s known about all along.

“We’ve been wait­ing to see that hap­pen for years,” Ham­mond said. “We’re sit­u­ated in the midst of so many good things.”

Smith, who grew up in Bal­ti­more, said she was drawn to the Yel­low Bowl prop­erty by its ad­dress: 1234 Green­mount Ave. Her cater­ing and pop-up restau­rant busi­ness is named 12:34, be­cause she be­lieves as­cend­ing se­quen­tial num­bers mean you’re headed in the right di­rec­tion.

She’s plan­ning to call her restau­rant 12:34, or pos­si­bly 12:34 at the Yel­low Bowl — she hasn’t de­cided yet. Ei­ther way, she hopes her idea for a menu that em­pha­sizes break­fast and lunch com­fort foods — with a global twist — will pay trib­ute to the Johnston Square in­sti­tu­tion’s his­tory.

The Yel­low Bowl was founded in 1921 by Greek-Amer­i­cans, but is best re­mem­bered for the pork ribs, stewed chicken, bis­cuits and other soul food fa­vorites served up by a later owner, Youman Fullard Sr.

Fullard, who bought the restau­rant in 1968, was so suc­cess­ful in Johnston Square that he opened a se­cond lo­ca­tion in 1975 near the Pim­lico Race Course. His like­ness can be found in the Great Blacks in Wax Mu­seum.

In ad­di­tion to the restau­rant, Smith plans to in­clude a teach­ing kitchen to train res­i­dents in ba­sic culi­nary skills they could use to get a job in a lo­cal restau­rant kitchen.

Smith, who teaches classes through the lo­cal meal ser­vice Move­able Feast, said it is im­por­tant that her busi­ness give back to the com­mu­nity.

“I’ve seen what it looks like when busi­nesses open and they care about the com­mu­nity and they want the com­mu­nity to feel wel­come and a part,” Smith said. “I’ve also seen what it looks like when ‘lo­ca­tion, lo­ca­tion, lo­ca­tion’ — that’s the only driv­ing force and they don’t care about the peo­ple who’ve been here. “That’s not what I want.” Down the road from the Yel­low Bowl, Charm City Mead­works has in­stalled four fer­ment­ing tanks in its new in­dus­trial space on Pre­ston Street, and alu­minum cans of the sweet brew are stacked to the ceil­ing as work­ers hus­tle to fin­ish build­ing out a tap­room in time to open next month.

Charm City Mead­works moved oper­a­tions this year to the 6,500-square-foot in­dus­trial space. It’s five times larger than its old space in Cur­tis Bay. The com­pany con­sid­ered spots all over the city be­fore set­tling on Johnston Square, co-owner Andrew Gef­fken said, be­cause the size and price were right.

“It’s sad and eye-open­ing, the amount of va­cancy here, but that’s some of what en­ables us to have such a big space,” Gef­fken said. “We wanted to be closer to the city, but we also wanted to be on the edge of things.”

Johnston Square isn’t ex­actly bustling with re­tail. Charm City Mead­works plans to make an out­door seat­ing area and lively en­trance fac­ing Bid­dle Street with the goal of lur­ing visi­tors over the bridge from Mount Ver­non and draw­ing more foot traf­fic to the neigh­bor­hood.

Kim Clark, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent at the Bal­ti­more De­vel­op­ment Corp., said en­trepreneurs such as Gef­fken and Smith play a crit­i­cal role in neigh­bor­hood re­vi­tal­iza­tion by serv­ing as an­chors that can at­tract more peo­ple to the area and set an ex­am­ple for other busi­nesses and de­vel­op­ers to fol­low.

“Peo­ple need to see things they can touch,” Clark said, “so once they start see­ing ac­tual build­ings in place and build­ings that look nice and have a good ef­fect on the com­mu­nity, they start to see hope.

“For a long time, Green­mount Av­enue head­ing south, you sort of dead-ended at the cor­rec­tional fa­cil­ity.”

Now Green­mount Av­enue is flush with ac­tiv­ity from Open Works, a mak­erspace cre­ated by the Bal­ti­more Arts Realty Corp., and sev­eral re­cently re­done res­i­den­tial build­ings: City Arts, City Arts 2, and the Lil­lian Jones apart­ments.

As res­i­den­tial re­de­vel­op­ment moves into Johnston Square, Red­fern said, the city must make sure that de­vel­op­ers work with res­i­dents to en­sure the re­sults meet their needs.

“It has to be a re­ally, re­ally tar­geted ef­fort, so com­mu­ni­ties don’t feel like we’re do­ing some­thing to them — that our de­vel­op­ment ef­forts are with them,” Red­fern said.

TRF is gut­ting and ren­o­vat­ing six row­houses on Home­wood Av­enue at a cost of about $200,000 each, with plans to do an­other six. The work is backed by a fed­eral tax credit pro­gram that re­quires the units be rented to low-in­come res­i­dents for no more than a third of their in­come. Af­ter five years, the homes can be sold.

TRF paid $100,000 last month to ac­quire two blocks of city-owned va­cant row­houses on Bid­dle Street. The 20 units will be built to sell to low-in­come res­i­dents.

TRF, Cre­ated by The Rein­vest­ment Fund, a Philadel­phia-based in­vest­ment bank, and BUILD, the Bal­ti­more com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment group, has ren­o­vated hun­dreds of va­cant row­houses in Oliver and Green­mount West.

Along with BUILD, TRF re­cently launched a home­own­er­ship pro­gram that helps low-in­come renters pre­pare to buy.

TRF Pres­i­dent Sean Closkey said home­own­er­ship can help sta­bi­lize a neigh­bor- hood, as res­i­dents build eq­uity in the prop­erty and feel a stronger sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity to main­tain the place they live.

In many neigh­bor­hoods un­der­go­ing re­de­vel­op­ment, he said, rentals out­num­ber units for sale be­cause the cost of re­build­ing a home is of­ten greater than what it can sell for.

To build homes in Johnston Square to sell, TRF will need to raise enough money to make up the dif­fer­ence be­tween the con­struc­tion cost and the an­tic­i­pated sale price.

Closkey said the non­profit was drawn to the neigh­bor­hood by Ham­mond and her group’s pas­sion for re­viv­ing the area and high­light­ing its strengths. He said fea­tures that might de­ter other de­vel­op­ers — such as the prison next door — seem like chal­lenges only when there is noth­ing else pos­i­tive to point to.

“Are you go­ing to cel­e­brate and put your best foot for­ward, or walk around sheep­ishly and say, ‘I’ve got a prison in my back­yard’?” Closkey said. “It’s a phe­nom­e­nal lo­ca­tion. It’s the nexus com­ing across the city into East Bal­ti­more, it’s linked to the arts and en­ter­tain­ment, it has en­gaged cit­i­zenry. “Those are all things that make neigh­bor­hoods work. It has all the pieces you need to get rid of what doesn’t work.”

The Rev. Ray Cot­ton, pastor of Mount Si­nai Bap­tist Church on Pre­ston Street, said the neigh­bor­hood has come a long way since he started preach­ing in the area 20 years ago. Now he wants to see new de­vel­op­ment in­clude ameni­ties and ser­vices such as a gro­cery store. “I be­lieve Johnston Square is a model, and go­ing to be a very pos­i­tive model for change through­out the city,” Cot­ton said. “The neg­a­tive is cit­i­zens are still tremen­dously chal­lenged.”

Cot­ton’s his­toric church is re­build­ing af­ter a fire de­stroyed its li­brary last year.

Knott’s Bal­ti­more Neigh­bor­hood In­di­ca­tors Al­liance stud­ies so­cial, health and eco­nomic in­di­ca­tors in the city. For a neigh­bor­hood re­de­vel­op­ment to be suc­cess­ful, she said, those in­volved must con­sider trans­porta­tion and ac­cess to jobs.

Nearly 30 per­cent of res­i­dents in the Green­mount East sta­tis­ti­cal area spend more than 45 min­utes com­mut­ing to work.

More than half of house­holds do not have a car, and the area is at least a half-mile walk from Penn Sta­tion. Knott said most in the neigh­bor­hood likely em­bark on lengthy bus rides to work.

“If you’re hav­ing res­i­dents who are spend­ing that long to get to work, it’s hard to con­tinue liv­ing in the neigh­bor­hood or to con­tinue hav­ing a job, which is prob­a­bly far away,” she said.

The city is try­ing to ad­dress that chal­lenge. Planned im­prove­ments for the Green­mount cor­ri­dor in­clude bump-outs to slow traf­fic and make it safer to cross the street.

Bal­ti­more Link’s new routes might also help res­i­dents get to work faster, Knott said. Bet­ter trans­porta­tion could also im­prove ac­cess to Mount Ver­non, the Univer­sity of Bal­ti­more and other thriv­ing neigh­bor­hoods that, though just blocks away, have been cut off by the Jones Falls Ex­press­way.

Schmoke, the pres­i­dent of the Univer­sity of Bal­ti­more, said he wants to see a stronger con­nec­tion be­tween his in­sti­tu­tion and its neigh­bors to the east. The univer­sity has been in talks with Open Works about op­por­tu­ni­ties for stu­dents, and Schmoke said he sees the Johnston Square neigh­bor­hood as an ex­ten­sion of that area.

Be­fore long, he might have an­other com­pelling rea­son to cross the JFX: Smith hopes to open her restau­rant within the next two years. There’s a lot of work to do first. Smith is gut­ting the long-va­cant space. She wants to tear down con­crete bar­ri­ers be­hind the main build­ing and clear out decades of brush and trash to make way for an event area, in which she can host small par­ties.

She said she’s com­mit­ted to see­ing it through. “I just re­ally hope to be able to be part of the com­mu­nity,” she said. “I feel good about Johnston Square.”

Heather Smith


Chef Heather Smith will be tak­ing over the for­mer Yel­low Bowl soul food restau­rant on Green­mount Av­enue in the Johnston Square com­mu­nity, hop­ing to of­fer a menu of break­fast and lunch com­fort foods with a global twist.

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