Drab row houses line street after street, forsaken little mom-and-pop stores dot the corners, the boarded-up houses run in the hundreds and there is not one plot of green open space in all of Sandtown-Winchester's 71 square blocks.
It is the kind of neighborhood, says barber Francisco Taylor, where "as soon as a kid gets an education and a job, the first thing he wants to do is leave."
It is in communities like this one that Baltimore is fighting the real battle for urban survival. And that fact was never so painfully clear as this week, while the city celebrates the latest triumph in its downtown renewal -- the opening of Harborplace, a glistening glass-pavilioned mall on the city's Inner Harbor.
"Baltimore is far from having solved its problems. It is still a very distressed city," Assistant Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Robert Embry said this week as he talked of Harborplace and the Baltimore renewal program he once headed.
"It's tax rate is two or three times that of the surrounding suburbs; its schools are in trouble; all the indicators -- welfare rolls, poverty, umemployment, child mortality -- it is a city with grave problems. Harborplace is hardly a solution. It's just a visible sign of something positive."
Two miles northwest of Harborplace, the neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester is struggling to find that elusive "something positive," too. But here, it is easier to grasp the problems that to find the solutions.
"Look," said Ella Johnson, the community's most ardent activist, "It's just an inner-city neighborhood. It won't catch on with middle- and upper-income-whites. It's buried in a black, lower-income pocket. It's poor people, almost sub-working class. Some kids graduate from high school, many don't."
The community is located in the predominantly black west side of Baltimore, a city where the 1979 unemployment rate was recently reported as the second highest in the nation and black unemployment was three times higher than that for whites.
"A good block in Sandtown," said Johnson, "is one where there are less than five vacant houses." And the bad blocks are ones she doesn't even like to think about.
But with all its problems, Sandtown is far from unique. "There are probably dozens of Sandtowns in Baltimore," said Vinnie Quayle, a neighborhood housing expert who works in another part of town. "Neighborhoods that don't have powerful resources . . . dynamic church leaders, political clout. They have a few devoted, dedicated community people who are overworked and can't get it all done."
Sandtown indeed has those, the Ella Johnsons and Francisco Taylors, who have a simple vision for their neighborhood -- encouraging people to buy their homes and making some of the community's decaying hulks into homes worth owning.
The symbol of their dreams -- and their frustrations -- is a block of massive old homes, long ago broken up into apartments, on North Fulton. That is the community's main street, a once-gracious parkway where the flower-filled center strip years ago gave way to an extra lane for the trucks, buses and cars that clatter past each day.
There are 15 houses in the 900 block, each three stories high. Most are enclosed by a mesh and barbedwire fence that the city threw up after the buildings were vacant -- their windows and doors boarded shut, their front yards strewn with debris, their rear walls, tumbling. The only signs of life are the little gardens of colard greens and turnips that someone has started in the back.
Four years ago, Johnson said, the Sandtown-Winchester improvement association asked for a portion of the city's federal block grant to buy the homes and rehabilitate and remodel them as cooperative housing units. In 1978, they won a $42,000 grant to acquire the properties and $35,000 for architectural design.
Last year, $1.2 million in block grants was allocated for construction, and in the proposed grants for 1981 there is $1.1 million more -- money for construction that still hasn't started but has doubled in price because of inflation.
Still, as far as many in the community are concerned, nothing has happened. "It's been a four-year-fight, and we haven't even seen the first brick done," Johnson said last week.
But Jay Brodie, Baltimore's commissioner of housing and community development, said that projects of such complexity do not lead to quick, tangible results. Complicated acquisition of property, some relocation of tenants and architectural designs had to be done before construction could start, he said.
"It's an understandable human reaction," Brodie said of the community's frustration.
Change, he acknowledged, comes slow to the inner city, but it was no different for the city's grimy, old port area -- the area that is now the inner Harbor, the glittering symbol of the city's revival.
"It took five years from the first grant there, till the first new building went up."
This week, as the city prepared for the ballyhooed opening of Harborplace, Brodie met with neighborhood leaders from Sandtown. He promised that bids for contracts on the cooperative homes would go out in July. He promised funds for the home ownership program they have wanted for three years.And he hired Ella Johnson to run it.
"What does it take to make people believers?" Johnson had mused last week. "People see what other people get, and they don't get anything. When they do, people will get involved. They'll believe, and then something will start to happen here."