Greg Alexander

Mondawmin: Rebirth in the City

Baltimore Sun, July 23, 2008

All throughout Baltimore City, about every neighborhood has experienced countless ups and downs – periods of massive residential expansion, followed by periods of decline and urban flight and then periods of renaissance and rebirth. The reasons for a turnaround can vary – sometimes it’s the result of a proactive neighborhood association, other times it’s the involvement and cooperation of religious and business leaders, while in some cases, it’s the result of a burgeoning commercial district that draws visitors from other parts of the City, who in turn discover the benefits of living in an up-and-coming area. In the case of Mondawmin, a diverse neighborhood located in northwest Baltimore, all of these factors have combined to contribute to the neighborhood’s rebirth and revitalization.

A distinguished history

The neighborhood of Mondawmin has a long and interesting history. Its name derives from the name of the mid-19th-century estate home of George Brown, son of millionaire banker Alexander Brown, founder of the oldest banking house in the United States. Upon the elder Brown’s death in 1834, George Brown inherited the family estate “Springfield,” located near Greenmount Cemetery along a proposed road expansion that forced the family to sell the estate. Brown decided to move the family to a 300-acre farm and house built in 1840 by Patrick Macauley, a Baltimore physician and director of the B&O Railroad, who sold the gorgeous neo-Classical home to Brown in 1850 via an auction. It is believed that the name “Mondawmin” was coined by the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who when visiting Brown and gazing at the large cornfield there, suggested the name “Mondamin,” after the Indian god of the cornfields that appeared is his poem, “Hiawatha.” Later, the spelling of the name was changed to Mondawmin. Brown and his descendants would live at Mondawmin from 1850 until 1949, when the last of the great-grandsons, Alexander Brown, died at the age of 91. In the next few years, Mondawmin Mall would be built on the site of the former estate.

The convergence of the streetcar lines at Pennsylvania and North avenues fueled residential development in the area and shortly after the turn of the 20th century, more rowhomes were built. “In the 1930s and 1950s, Mondawmin was predominantly a neighborhood of Jewish residents from Eastern Europe,” says Earl Arnett, president of the Greater Mondawmin Coordination Council (GMCC), an umbrella organization that represents the nine different neighborhoods around Mondawmin Mall. “When segregation started to break down in the 1950s, African-Americans began to cross over North Avenue and into more of what was then considered the suburbs,” says Arnett, who notes that most of the Jewish residents began to move further northwest to Reisterstown and Park Heights.

“Neighborhoods like Mondawmin afforded the opportunity for professional African-American families to leave the City for houses with back yards and garages,” says Arnett. “However, like many neighborhoods, Mondawmin experienced tough times in the 1980s. The children of the first wave of African-American residents went to college and then followed the next movement to the suburbs. Meanwhile, in Mondawmin, we began to fight against the drugs and trash in the neighborhood. Now, we’ve stabilized, and we’re on the way up,” Arnett says proudly. Through all these changes, Arnett has seen it all, as he and his wife have lived in the same house for 41 years. “My wife was raised in Mondawmin, and when we go married, I moved from my place in Bolton Hill to her house; she’s been here since 1963.” Arnett, who was a features writer for The Sun for 14 years, met his wife – the acclaimed jazz singer, Ethel Ennis, who sang with Benny Goodman and Cab Calloway and sang for Presidents Nixon and Carter – on assignment.

Neighborhood on the rise

The non-profit GMCC was formed in 1976, reincorporated in 2000, and last year, the organization expanded its board of directors to include major institutions, including Coppin State University and Baltimore City Community College; local businesses, including Mondawmin Mall; and area churches, a move Arnett says has been the key to the neighborhood’s revitalization.

“When we added businesses, churches and institutional players to the mix, everything changed,” he says. “Now, we have a neighborhood association president sitting next to a university president at a board meeting. We’re still fighting a lot of the same problems – crime and sanitation issues – but what makes us different now is that we’re operating on a different level. There is only so much volunteers can accomplish; now we have a focus on organization, cooperation on all levels and the varying expertise brought to the table. Great things are possible in Mondawmin.”

Arnett says that one of the initiatives the GMCC is looking into is the acquisition of property to be developed for community interests and working further as a member of Baltimore’s Healthy Neighborhoods organization, which helps, among other things, designated neighborhoods market their communities. “We’re hiring a coordinator to help market the nine member neighborhoods of the GMCC and attract new homebuyers by offering low-interest loans for first-time homebuyers and loans for rehabilitation of homes,” says Arnett. Most of the housing stock in Mondawmin consists of brick rowhomes, many of which sit on large lots by Baltimore City standards. Prices for brick rowhomes are affordable but prices are on the rise, as more and more people discover the revitalization of Mondawmin.

Mondawmin is attractive to homebuyers, too, as the neighborhood is surrounded by green spaces, including Druid Hill Park, a 700-plus-acre park listed on the National Register of Historic Places and home to the Maryland Zoo, and Hanlon Park. Arnett adds that in 2010, the Parks & People Foundation is establishing its headquarters adjacent to Druid Hill Park.

Businesses part of team approach

One of the key members of Mondawmin’s team approach, Arnett says, is Mondawmin Mall. “They are part of our board of directors and our office is in the mall. The owner of the mall, General Growth Properties, has a real vision, something that was lacking in the past, and has put their money where their mouth is by dedicating to a complete renovation of the mall.”

As one of the GMCC’s board members, Charlotte Waters, general manger for Mondawmin Mall, notes that the mall has given the GMCC office space in the mall free of charge since 2001-2002. “We have a great relationship with the GMCC and partner with them on special events and communications, as well as working with the public schools and colleges here. The relationship is fantastic; any of us can pick up the phone and call anyone else on the board at any time with concerns or ideas,” says Waters.

Waters adds that Mondawmin Mall was the “first mall in Baltimore as we know malls today – an anchor store with a grouping of smaller stores around it,” and has always had close ties with the neighborhood. That relationship will undoubtedly grow even stronger, thanks to Mondawmin Mall’s $70 million expansion and renovation project.

Waters says that the first element of the transformation of Mondawmin Mall is the addition of 225,000 square feet of retail space, including a 67,660-square-foot Shoppers Food & Pharmacy, the largest grocery store in Baltimore City, and a 127,000-square-foot Target store, the first one in the City, which opens July 27. A new AJ Wright clothing store, which is owned by Marshalls, is also new to Mondawmin Mall.

“Additionally, the entire interior and much of the exterior of the mall is getting a facelift. The exterior will feature bold graphics and colors, enhanced lighting and new landscaping. Inside, the restrooms have been expanded and renovated, new stainless steel railings have been added and our iconic spiral staircase now has beautiful iridescent tiles,” says Waters, who adds that the open and airy feel of the mall also features great views of Baltimore. “Also, many of our current stores like Payless Shoes, Foot Locker and Subway are building brand new stores. We’re offering a broader mix of stores that will reach out to other communities in Baltimore and encourage them to discover Mondawmin.”

Arnett concurs. “The Target will draw from all over, adding to our diverse community. The Shoppers has already been a huge success, proving that there is a market here to support new retail,” he says. Arnett adds that he is further excited about the addition of Target, due to the company’s long-standing tradition of being active in the communities they serve. “They focus on public safety, childhood education and local artists, which is perfect for Mondawmin.” “This is so exciting for me to be a part of; I was born and raised here, so this is near and dear to my heart,” adds Waters, who notes that 500 additional jobs will be created by the new retail offerings.

Life-long learning

“One of the unique aspects of Mondawmin is that residents can attend school from Kindergarten to a master’s degree without leaving the neighborhood,” Arnett says, “as we have Baltimore City Community College and Coppin State right here, two schools that serve more Baltimore City high school graduates than any other colleges in Maryland.” Arnett says that while most attention is given to the Johns Hopkins University complex in East Baltimore and the University of Maryland complex downtown, the higher education concentration in Mondawmin is important, too.

“We are here not only to offer academic opportunities to college students, but to also provide educational opportunities to the community through continuing education, workforce development, GEDs and English as a Second Language classes,” says Carolane Williams, Ph.D., president of Baltimore City Community College (BCCC). “Also, we provide cultural opportunities for residents through our fine and performing arts. We are a resource for the community.”

Williams says that the open dialogue between BCCC and the community is vital. “We have great conversations about the issues of the neighborhood and what we all what Mondawmin to be and how BCCC can help,” she says. Williams adds that BCCC is exploring opportunities to expand its campus in Mondawmin, too.

Coppin State University, which is also located in the neighborhood and has an active member on the GMCC’s board, is in the midst of a renovation and expansion plan, which Arnett says will contribute to Mondawmin’s renaissance.

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