Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski describes plans for downtown Essex. Photo by John Lee/WYPR.

Essex, the waterfront community on Baltimore County’s east side, has been declining for years. Steel manufacturing jobs vanished after Bethlehem Steel shut down in 2003, but some aerospace players are still active in the region. It is struggling with one of the highest crime rates in the county.

Population peaked in the 1990s when there were 40,800 residents then dropped for years until a small uptick when the 2020 U.S. Census estimated 40,500 residents.

One year after launching a multi-million dollar plan to turn Essex around, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski said he is confident that incremental improvements will add up.

“I think the long-term impacts are going to take some time for us to see how these investments are moving the needle for Essex,” Olszewski said.

He cited several examples of what is being done now to save Essex. A social worker has a post at the local library, the county is ramping up a program to eradicate rats, and there’s a $400,000 budget to replace benches, fix sidewalks and plant trees along Eastern Boulevard, Essex’s struggling main drag.

“We know that street trees have proven benefits for communities that go beyond just the aesthetics,” Olszewski said. “They draw in more foot traffic, they increase revenue for businesses, they improve our air quality.”

The sidewalks on Eastern Boulevard are crumbling and uneven. There are old tree boxes from a bygone era that have been filled in with asphalt.