Chruscikis were on the mind of Annette Sager. The Polish pastry -- flaky and subtle of taste -- couldn't be found at the Baltic Bakery, so Sager, known in the upper Fells Point neighborhood of East Baltimore as "the Polish godmother," pushed on a few blocks to Mikulski's bake shop. She found the Chruscikis, and bought a dozen.
Of late, Sager, 57 and the daughter of an immigrant Polish laborer, is used to pushing for what she wants. She is the president of the Citizens United Against the Fells Point Expansion. This is a community organization seeking to protect low- and fixed-income families from rising property taxes and urban displacement caused by proximity to a revitalized downtown, including the Inner Harbor development. Sager, born in upper Fells Point and a home-owner for 35 years, earns $6,000 a year as a scrub lady. "I'm not ashamed to clean toilets," she told an Interior Department official last week. Shame would hit her, she said later, if she went on welfare or food stamps. She never has.
Since January, Sager and other alarmed citizens in this mostly Polish and Ukrainian neighborhood, which has about 7,000 people and 2,200 properties, have been rallying in self-defense. A proposal was made to place the area on the National Register of Historic Places, an expansion of the historic district that lies south near the Baltimore waterfront. The process involves officials from the Maryland Historical Trust and, nationally, the Interior Department. In other cities, citizens are having to sort out history, citizens' rights, real-estate prices and speculator gambles, but here the dynamism of Sager and her group puts the conflict into full public view.
"We are being threatened," Sager says, "by those interested in bricks, mortar and history, not people. They might understand the history of our area as it was in the 1700s, but they don't care about the history of the people living here now. Our parents worked in the fields, picking beans, to pay for these houses. My blood and flesh went into buying this house too. We were pulled from school in April and didn't return until November. The family packed a couple of trunks, and we were put on a truck like cattle. First we went to Galena, Md., where we cut and packed asparagus, strawberries, early beans, tomatoes and corn. Then we went to Biloxi, Miss., to shuck oysters. I was about five or six, but I worked. These are among my earliest memories."
The most recent memories of Sager include her tax bills and those of her neighbors. She tells of citizens, caught in the soaring prices created by real-estate speculation, who paid $200 in taxes seven years ago and are now paying $1,400. In the area already designated as historic, some assessments for modest houses have gone beyond $2,500. A row house sold for $12,000 in 1973, resold for $110,000 three years ago and is now on the market for $159,000. "If this community goes historic," Sager fears, "houses will be selling for even higher prices, and we will be taxed right out of this neighborhood."
Rodney Little, an official of the Maryland Historical Trust, has sympathy for the citizens' group but not for all of its arguments. "There is no causal relationship between historic designation and increases in property values," he argues. "In other neighborhoods near Fells Point that have been designated for years, you can find examples of level property values and examples of decreased property values. The benefits and economic tools that follow historic designation have been used frequently to benefit and keep low-income residents in place."
In the middle of all this -- literally and politically -- is Rep. Barbara Mikulski. A lifelong Fells Point resident and a daily commuter between Congress and her small house on South Ann Street, Mikulski signed a petition against the proposed historic designation. "I did not fight to save the neighborhood for this," she wrote on the petition.
Legally, the process can be stopped if 51 percent of the property owners are opposed. Collecting notarized signatures, locating owners of vacant lots or commercial buildings and going door-to-door explaining the issues have proven almost too much for the citizens' group. It has no funds. The organizing must be done on evenings and weekends.
Should the group be successful, the victory will be only partial. The economic forces that are encircling the neighborhood -- seeing properties as the main value, not families -- grow in strength. If Annette Sager and her group can stop these forces, they won't be fighting history, they'll be making it.