Life, death and de­mo­li­tion

For more than a cen­tury, hun­dreds of peo­ple called this patch of East Bal­ti­more home. Now the 900 block of North Brad­ford Street is about to be torn down as a city with 17,000 boarded-up houses lays waste to its blight and its his­tory.

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY STEVE HEN­DRIX

The nine row­houses a few blocks from Johns Hop­kins Hospi­tal stood for more than a cen­tury, through waves of im­mi­gra­tion, two world wars, the up­end­ing of the city’s econ­omy and a shift in its racial makeup.

The arched win­dows along the 900 block of North Brad­ford Street re­flected both the boom and the de­cline of a great Amer­i­can city: the pros­per­ous mid­cen­tury, when all nine house­holds could af­ford the Form­stone that cov­ered their brick fronts; the tu­mult of 1968, when res­i­dents could smell the smoke from nearby ri­ots; the white flight that would open the street to African Amer­i­cans; and the drug wars that would drive many of them away.

Since it was built on an old brick­yard in 1905 by the “twos­tory king of East Bal­ti­more,” hun­dreds of peo­ple have called the block home.

But only one of them was there to see that his­tory end.

Mable Olds, 69, the last res­i­dent of 936 N. Brad­ford, was on hand to see the gov­ern­ment-paid ex­ca­va­tor roll up to the house where she — and many moth­ers be­fore her — had raised her fam­ily.

“I don’t know,” Olds said on a sunny sum­mer morn­ing, stand­ing by the man­hole cover that had been home plate when her son played base­ball on the nar­row street. “I just don’t know about tear­ing down good houses.”

She was not the only one un­cer­tain about the in­ten­tional de­struc­tion she was about to wit­ness. Bal­ti­more, like Detroit and other aging Amer­i­can cities plagued by aban­doned hous­ing, is spend­ing mil­lions of dol­lars tear­ing out blighted pieces of it­self in the hope that, like a pruned tree, the rest of the city will bloom.

As Mary­land’s largest city has dwin­dled from a peak pop­u­la­tion

of 950,000 in 1950 to about 620,000 to­day, the re­ced­ing tide has left be­hind 17,000 board­edup houses and build­ings, un­oc­cu­pied, un­wanted and un­sta­ble. They are scat­tered through­out the city, with ma­jor con­cen­tra­tions on the east side, as well as in bat­tered West Bal­ti­more, where 25-year-old Fred­die Gray’s death from an in­jury suf­fered in po­lice cus­tody trig­gered ri­ots in 2015.

Some of the va­cant houses are brick hulks, roof­less and ir­repara­ble, in such dan­ger of col­lapse that the city keeps a de­mo­li­tion crew on standby 24 hours a day. But many are struc­turally sound, ar­ti­facts of Bal­ti­more’s rich his­tory and the crafts­man­ship of its ear­lier days.

City plan­ners hope the de­mo­li­tions will give a boost to strug­gling, of­ten crime-plagued com­mu­ni­ties. Oth­ers are skep­ti­cal or down­right sus­pi­cious.

“I hope it’s not just to move black peo­ple out,” Olds said.

That’s a com­mon fear in a neigh­bor­hood where Hop­kins, a world-renowned and ev­er­ex­pand­ing hospi­tal, has just built a pub­lic char­ter school a block away and where mil­len­ni­als mov­ing into re­habbed row­houses play with their pets on a grassy, de­mo­li­tion-cre­ated field.

“Peo­ple need houses, not dog parks,” de­clared Olds’s son, Barak Olds, who said the hospi­tal has long been open about its de­sire to re­make the area.

“When I was a kid, they used to have a model of the whole neigh­bor­hood at Hop­kins, how they wanted it to look,” he said. “This is the fruition of that plan.”

Mable Olds raised her 44-yearold son and two daugh­ters at 936 N. Brad­ford while work­ing shifts at a laun­dry plant. She moved into the 760-square-foot row­house in 1974, bought it in 1978 for $4,000 and lived in it un­til there were only three other homes still oc­cu­pied on the block.

Olds was the last owner. The first was Lewis Crossont, a Ger­man Amer­i­can glass-fac­tory worker who paid about $800 for the house in 1906 and moved in with his wife and sis­ter. In the decades be­tween, a fac­tory fore­man, bar­rel­maker and house painter made No. 936 home.

“So many fam­i­lies here,” Olds said qui­etly. The glit­tered and glued let­ters C-H-L-O-E-E were still stuck on her grand­daugh- ter’s bed­room wall.

A work­man took up a fire hose, ready to spray down the demo dust. He grew up four blocks away from Brad­ford. An­other worker, ready to stack sal­vaged bricks on a pal­let, had an aunt who lived across the street. These were not strangers tak­ing down the neigh­bor­hood.

“Oh, I knew Miss Emma very well be­fore she went to the nurs­ing home,” said Jerome “Reds” Banks, point­ing at one of the houses as he got ready to climb into the cab of his Hi­tachi ex­ca­va­tor and knock it down. “She was a good friend of my mother’s.”

Across the street, as he waited in the shade to load his dump truck with the 10 tons of de­bris each house would pro­duce, “Big Mike” Saun­ders, 59, re­mem­bered his own mother. She cleaned stoops on these streets for seven hours a day, go­ing door to door with a bucket and a can of Ajax.

He de­scribed the end of the milk­man era and the bags of fur­nace coal you had to shove through base­ment win­dows. He learned to make sausage from the Pol­ish butch­ers in the mar­ket, hun­kered down dur­ing the ri­ots and saw his black neigh­bors be­gin to move out when drugs came and crime soared in the 1990s.

“I seen this whole neigh­bor­hood change, man,” Saun­ders said.

A diesel en­gine revved to life across the street. Saun­ders leaned back on a stoop. He was go­ing to watch it change some more.

‘A league of na­tions’

When the 900 block of North Brad­ford Street was built in 1905, Bal­ti­more was grow­ing. It was the sixth-big­gest city in Amer­ica, and the great wave of Euro­pean im­mi­gra­tion was still de­posit­ing Poles, Ger­mans, Ital­ians and oth­ers in eth­nic en­claves all over the city.

A good many Czechs — then de­scribed as Aus­tro-Bo­hemi­ans on cen­sus doc­u­ments — gath­ered in “Lit­tle Bo­hemia” north of Pat­ter­son Park, where a young builder named Frank No­vak was put­ting up row­houses fast enough to earn the “two-story king” moniker. He built the homes on North Brad­ford for about $700 each, with bricks pro­duced around the cor­ner on Ea­ger Street and lum­ber brought up by ship from Ge­or­gia and North Carolina.

They were “al­ley houses,” just 10 feet wide with shal­low win­dow arches and wooden stoops, and their three tiny bed­rooms were crammed with big fam­i­lies like the Mifkovics.

Peter Mifkovic, a young la­borer who came over from a vil­lage just north of Bratislava in what is now Slo­vakia in 1905, and his new wife, Agnes, moved into 930 N. Brad­ford, where all six of their chil­dren grew up. The house was a bois­ter­ous gath­er­ing place for the next half-cen­tury as the Mifkovic chil­dren mar­ried into Ger­man, Ital­ian and Ir­ish

fam­i­lies.

“It was a league of na­tions around that din­ing-room ta­ble,” re­mem­bered Mary Mifkovic, 91, who lives in a sub­ur­ban re­tire­ment com­mu­nity. She was mar­ried for 62 years to Ed, the youngest Mifkovic boy, who was born in 1923 in one of the up­stairs bed­rooms.

The two met at Martin Avi­a­tion, the air­plane man­u­fac­turer where both worked just af­ter World War II. Ed’s mother, who never learned much English, worked at a tomato can­nery. One sis­ter worked in a tex­tile plant, two oth­ers for Mc­Cormick, all down­town fac­to­ries.

But af­ter the war, Ed and Mary Mifkovic joined the grow­ing mi­gra­tion to the sub­urbs.

“Every­body was sold on the idea that you wanted to live in an en­vi­ron­ment with grass and trees and new schools,” said Fran­cis O’Neill, a Bal­ti­more his­to­rian at the Mary­land His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety. “They built new roads mak­ing it fea­si­ble to com­mute back to the fac­to­ries, but then the fac­to­ries be­gan to move out, too.”

A con­ta­gion of blight

In a grow­ing city, a va­cant house is an as­set. In a shrink­ing one, it is a men­ace. The empty yard be­comes a dump; ply­wood sheets do lit­tle to keep out squat­ters, drug deal­ers, pros­ti­tutes and ar­son­ists. Fires started in aban­doned build­ings cause hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in prop­erty dam­age and kill 45 peo­ple a year, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Fire Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Worse, blight is con­ta­gious. An aban­doned house saps the prop­erty value of its neigh­bors and can trig­ger more de­cay.

“Peo­ple start to lose faith in the block,” said Alan Mal­lach, an econ­o­mist at the Cen­ter for Com­mu­nity Progress and the for­mer hous­ing di­rec­tor of Tren­ton, N.J. “Peo­ple be­gin to care less. Those who can, think about mov­ing.”

The coun­try’s in­ven­tory of aban­doned homes grew by more than 4.5 mil­lion be­tween 2000 and 2010, fu­eled by the fore­clo­sure cri­sis. Rust Belt may­ors, con­fronted with neigh­bor­hoods that looked like de­serted movie sets, started talk­ing less about growth and more about “right­siz­ing.”

Toledo and Akron, Ohio; Flint, Mich.; Buf­falo and other cities be­gan de­mol­ish­ing va­cant struc­tures as an al­ter­na­tive to man­ag­ing them. Detroit has torn down al­most 11,000 us­ing more than $580 mil­lion from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s Hard­est Hit Fund, a pro­gram tar­get­ing the states most stricken by fore­clo­sures.

The prom­ise of de­mo­li­tion is twofold. It elim­i­nates the haz­ards as­so­ci­ated with aban­doned build­ings and boosts the val­ues of the houses that are left. It also cre­ates green space — some­times ur­ban gar­dens, some­times weedy lots.

Mal­lach has been bullish on de­mo­li­tion, tout­ing its po­ten­tial in an in­flu­en­tial 2012 Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion re­port. He cites two re­cent stud­ies that show healthy ef­fects in Detroit and Cleve­land. In Detroit, re­searchers found that each house that was knocked down boosted the value of nearby prop­er­ties by more than 4 per­cent.

But as more cities tear down more houses, he has be­come less cer­tain. Neigh­bor­hoods that are largely in­tact can clearly ben­e­fit from hav­ing the va­cant struc­tures pruned out, he said. But some­times, the bull­doz­ers leave too many holes in the com­mu­nity fab­ric.

“In some cases, de­mol­ish­ing a lot of houses might be re­mov­ing that neigh­bor­hood’s chance to re­vive in the fu­ture,” he said. “There’s still a lot of am­biva­lence about it.”

Bal­ti­more, still strug­gling to re­cover from the chaos and soar­ing crime that fol­lowed Gray’s death, has spent about $40 mil­lion lay­ing siege to blighted neigh­bor­hoods since 2012. Ap­prox­i­mately 500 row­houses were knocked down in 2016, about the same pace as the pre­vi­ous year. Mary­land Gov. Larry Ho­gan (R) has pledged $74 mil­lion in state money. It would take about $500 mil­lion to clear away all of the boarded-up prop­er­ties.

City of­fi­cials said res­i­dents of the af­fected neigh­bor­hoods have been over­whelm­ingly sup­port­ive, in­clud­ing those who have to be re­lo­cated.

“We have peo­ple say­ing ‘When are you go­ing to get around to our block?’ ” said Bal­ti­more Act­ing Hous­ing Com­mis­sioner Michael Braver­man.

Brad­ford, af­ter re­quests from neigh­bor­hood lead­ers, made it onto the list in 2013.

‘All the white folks were gone’

The block be­gan to shift from white to black dur­ing the post­war mi­gra­tion to the sub­urbs. David Bell, 64, an African Amer­i­can who has lived on the op­po­site side of the block at 909 N. Brad­ford for most of his life, can re­mem­ber when black fam­i­lies and aging im­mi­grants lived side by side. The new­com­ers called the im­mi­grants “Ger­mans” no mat­ter where they were born.

“We had an old Ger­man man next to us for a long time, used to give us candy,” Bell said. “All the white folks went to St. Wences­laus [Catholic Church], and the black folks went to Is­rael Bap­tist.”

On a hot af­ter­noon the week be­fore the de­mo­li­tion was sched­uled, Bell was sit­ting on a Brad­ford stoop with an­other long­time neigh­bor­hood res­i­dent, Alvin Gentry, 64. A com­muter train roared by, close enough to make the pave­ment quiver.

“We used to walk those tracks be­fore Am­trak came,” Gentry said. “Re­mem­ber those smoky trains?” “Yes, I do,” Bell replied. “My grand­mother would beat me for com­ing out of that tun­nel all cov­ered in soot,” Gentry said.

The Brad­ford of their boy­hoods had clean side­walks and flow­ers in the al­ley. Miss Ethel sold candy ap­ples from her din­ing room and frozen ice pops from her kitchen. Moth­ers swept their stoops first thing ev­ery morn­ing.

Agnes Mifkovic, long wid­owed and still liv­ing at 930 N. Brad­ford, died in 1968 at 83. She lived to see the ri­ots that year, with the Na­tional Guard there telling res­i­dents to stay in­doors.

Bell spent three years in prison for armed rob­bery in the 1970s. “When I came out,” he said, “all the white folks were gone.”

Back then, Mable Olds knew every­body on the block and was known by all as “Miss Bee­kee,” a child­hood nick­name. Her three chil­dren rode bi­cy­cles on the street, went bare­foot in the al­leys and roamed freely.

But by the mid-1980s, drug deal­ing was grow­ing more com­mon and more bla­tant.

“You’d hear gun­shots all the time,” Barak Olds said. “All. The. Time. Ev­ery night.”

One night in the mid-1990s, his fam­ily was in the liv­ing room when the pop-pop-pops seemed closer than usual. They went out to find a woman ly­ing dead at the end of the block. “She stayed there for a cou­ple hours,” he re­called.

The groups of men on the cor­ners be­came more men­ac­ing. When a renter moved out, it took longer for a new ten­ant to move in. By the end of the 1980s, sev­eral houses on the block were empty. By the end of the ’90s, some were un­in­hab­it­able. When the city listed Mable Olds’s house for de­mo­li­tion in 2013, it was one of only three on the block that was not boarded up.

They of­fered Olds a ren­o­vated

row­house just around the cor­ner on North Mont­ford Av­enue, a key-for-key swap. Fi­nan­cially, she traded a house with a re­sale value near zero for one on a block where re­habbed houses like hers have sold for $200,000.

“It’s fine,” she said of her new house, shrug­ging. She hasn’t put up any of the pho­tographs from No. 936. She’s wor­ried about wa­ter stains on the liv­ing room ceil­ing. “There are pi­geons in the eaves.”

The city and state con­tract with mul­ti­ple firms to de­mol­ish houses. But only one does more than knock them down and dump the re­mains. De­tails, a branch of the Bal­ti­more non­profit Hu­manim, de­con­structs them and sal­vages the ma­te­rial for re­sale. To do the work, they hire ex-of­fend­ers, for­mer ad­dicts and other hard-to-em­ploy res­i­dents. Many are from the area.

“Watch your­self!” cried Ron­ald Fonce, 45, whose aunt lived a few yards away on Ea­ger Street, as he dropped a win­dow sash from what used to be Olds’s up­stairs win­dow. Down came the mat­tress that a squat­ter had moved in af­ter Olds had moved out in 2014. On the floor was a can of mixed veg­eta­bles, pried opened with a knife.

Ber­nadette Buck­son, 53, was tear­ing down the plas­ter­board in the tiny bath­room. Once, pulling down the ceil­ing in an­other tear­down, $200 in cash floated past her head.

“Some­body hid that a long time ago,” Buck­son said.

A re­cov­er­ing ad­dict with an ar­rest record, Buck­son had been turned down for jobs 32 times be­fore be­ing hired by De­tails. Even if she weren’t grate­ful for the work, she thinks it’s good to clear away the empty houses.

“I got clean and turned my life around,” Buck­son said. “I think change is good.”

Later that morn­ing, a voice called out from No. 920, where the crew was pulling out the heart pine floor­ing that would soon line the walls of a trendy new Bal­ti­more res­tau­rant called Gnocco. The thick joists were bound for the Ex­elon head­quar­ters be­ing built at Har­bor Point. The bricks would be sent to down­town Wash­ing­ton for the restora­tion of the his­toric Carter G. Wood­son house.

“Max,” the voice called. “Come see this.”

Max Pol­lock, the De­tails su­per­vi­sor and an ar­chi­tec­tural his­tory buff, came in to find his team look­ing up at an ex­posed joist with the words “Rose Bessie” and “Han­na­mans” painted on the side. The Rose was the coastal ship that de­liv­ered milled lum­ber more than a cen­tury ago, Pol­lock said. Han­na­mans was a lo­cal lum­ber­yard.

A for­mer Univer­sity of Michi­gan line­backer with a master’s de­gree in city de­sign from the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics, Pol­lock tears down houses with love. He tracks as much of the his­tory of their builders and res­i­dents as he can and blogs about them at Bal­ti­moreBrick­ByBrick.com.

“He’s got me walk­ing down the street look­ing at bricks,” Buck­son said.

Later that day, Jonathan Todd, a car­pen­ter from the Bal­ti­more sub­urbs, pulled up. He had never seen the house where his grand­fa­ther, Ed Mifkovic, was born. But he’d heard the sto­ries, and cu­rios­ity fi­nally led him to Google the ad­dress.

“This is where they ate din­ner,” he mar­veled, stand­ing for the first and only time in the kitchen of 930 N. Brad­ford. Some of its floor­boards were al­ready gone; the ground was lit­tered with old-fash­ioned cut nails. “I have a pic­ture of them sit­ting around the ta­ble right here.”

He walked about in si­lence, amazed to dis­cover his an­ces­tral seat only days be­fore it was to be de­mol­ished. “God brought me here,” he said. “He knows I’m sen­ti­men­tal.”

Lewis Crossont, the first res­i­dent of Mable Olds’s house at No. 936, also has de­scen­dants in the area. His grand­son Ch­ester Crossont owns a rac­ing garage in Bal­ti­more County with his two sons.

Reached by phone, Crossont, 70, said his knowl­edge of his fam­ily his­tory is sketchy. His grand­fa­ther started as a fur­nace ten­der and worked his whole ca­reer in the Carr-Lowrey glass bot­tle fac­tory. His dad, Ernest Lewis, was born in the house and grew up to be a steel­worker at Beth­le­hem Steel.

Crossont had never heard of North Brad­ford Street but knew that his fa­ther had grown up in East Bal­ti­more. Told the block was go­ing to be de­mol­ished, he said, “I’d like to see it.” His fam­ily avoids the city, he said, usu­ally pass­ing through only on the way to Ravens games. “Is it safe?”

A few days later, he, his wife and two sons walked into the liv­ing room of No. 936. Mable Olds walked in shortly af­ter.

It took a few min­utes for the white de­scen­dants of the row­house’s first owner and its black fi­nal owner to feel at ease with one an­other. But they formed a con­nec­tion from their com­mon ex­pe­ri­ence rais­ing chil­dren, know­ing Bal­ti­more and, mostly, shar­ing the her­itage of the pe­tite front room, the cramped kitchen, the nar­row stairs.

They talked amid the ex­posed plaster lath­ing for nearly an hour, then for half an hour more in the street out front. They hugged each other good­bye, fam­i­lies linked by an ad­dress. An ad­dress about to dis­ap­pear.

Dust and his­tory

On de­mo­li­tion day, af­ter the Brad­ford houses had been gut­ted of their valu­able wood, “Big Mike” Saun­ders waited for rub­ble piles to be loaded. He, too, was ready to be­lieve that those houses were go­ing down to ben­e­fit the be­he­moth hospi­tal down the road.

“You know who’s go­ing to buy these houses now? Hop­kins peo­ple,” Saun­ders said. That might be a good thing, he said; doc­tors and nurses make good neigh­bors. But still, it’s the hospi­tal get­ting its way.

The ten­sions be­tween Hop­kins and long­time African Amer­i­can res­i­dents is per­sonal for Saun­ders. He said he is a cousin of Hen­ri­etta Lacks, the Bal­ti­morean whose biop­sied cer­vi­cal cells were cul­tured by a Hop­kins re­searcher with­out her con­sent, form­ing a line of liv­ing cells still used by med­i­cal re­searchers. A best-sell­ing book about Lacks is be­ing turned into a movie by Oprah Win­frey.

“They robbed my fam­ily,” Saun­ders said. “They just do to African Amer­i­cans in East Bal­ti­more what­ever they want to. Al­ways have.”

Across the street, the Brad­ford houses basked in their fi­nal morn­ing sun. It wouldn’t take long now. “Reds” Banks, who can de­mol­ish more than 100 houses in a busy month — and they are all busy now — worked the long arm of his ex­ca­va­tor like a prize­fighter. The hose played on the bricks, ready to wet the dust.

The row­houses that shel­tered 111 years of Crossonts, Mifkovics and Old­ses shook at the first touch of the ma­chine’s metal teeth. The bricks, last han­dled in 1905 by the ma­sons who were build­ing a boom­ing city, shifted at the hy­draulic bite.

Banks pulled a lever, the bucket clawed at the wall, and, in a cloud of dust and his­tory, they fell, done at last with their cen­tury of ser­vice to a city and its peo­ple.

“Peo­ple start to lose faith in the block. Peo­ple be­gin to care less. Those who can, think about mov­ing.” Alan Mal­lach of the Cen­ter for Com­mu­nity Progress, about the con­ta­gion of blight

PHO­TOS BY BILL O’LEARY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TOP: The sun rises on the last row­house on North Brad­ford Street. ABOVE: Mable Olds, 69, had lived at 936 N. Brad­ford since 1974. She raised her kids there and stayed un­til only three other homes on the block were still oc­cu­pied.

ABOVE: The view in­side one of the row­houses slated for de­mo­li­tion in the 900 block of North Brad­ford Street. BE­LOW: A store at 929 N. Brad­ford St. in 1907. The 900 block had been built two years be­fore and was home to many im­mi­grants.

JOHN DUBAS/MARY­LAND HIS­TOR­I­CAL SO­CI­ETY

THE WASH­ING­TON POST

PHO­TOS BY BILL O’LEARY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Mable Olds talks with Jonathan Todd in­side her for­mer home at 936 N. Brad­ford St. Also present, from left, are Thomas, Christo­pher and Ch­ester Crossont, whose grand­fa­ther was the house’s first res­i­dent in 1906.

PHO­TOS BY BILL O’LEARY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

FROM TOP: The last row­house on East Bal­ti­more’s North Brad­ford Street is taken down. Pho­tos and trash dot the street as de­mo­li­tion be­gins. The 900 block of Brad­ford is now a lawn of newl­y­seeded grass. Sa­mara Davis, 9, car­ries dis­carded bricks as the fi­nal stages of de­mo­li­tion be­gin. His grand­mother, Mable Olds, 69, lived at 936 N. Brad­ford for decades.  To see a video about the block, go to

wapo.st/bal­ti­more­block. For a look in­side the row­houses slated to be torn down, visit wapo.st/row­house­pho­tos.

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