Contributor Joseph Martin, a Remington resident, analyzes the Baltimore neighborhood’s controversial conversion.
Baltimore’s love for urban rehab can feel unseemly; veil of chic aside, Woodberry’s broken windows still conjure the blight of hard times past. But neighborhood reboots also do a world of good, often throwing each area’s innate style and aspirations into sharp relief. When the Inner Harbor and Harbor East began to rebuild, they peppered the waterfront with tourist bait, such as swank cineplexes and paycheck-chewing eateries. Meanwhile, Hampden and Fells Point have both staged boutique revolutions, transforming their quiet storefront strips into bustling meccas of quirk and class.
Still, some neighborhoods beg a subtler facelift than others – Remington, for example. A residential salad of schools, parks, and playgrounds built around a core of auto shops, the area has long been a model of nondescript living, housing blue-collar families and lifers, as well as a persistent (if nonviolent) mix of daylight drug deals and boarded buildings. Neither a Wire-style war zone nor a bustling nexus of commerce, Remington kept to itself. So when gluten-free bakery Sweet Sin arrived in 2010, it raised many a local eyebrow.
“If you were out walking the dog, you’d hear people say, ‘A bakery’s coming,’” says Greater Remington Improvement Association (GRIA) president Judith Kunst. “It really was a contagious excitement,” she says. “When they opened, we were all thrilled.”
As it turned out, Sweet Sin was only the opening salvo in a minor land rush. Within a year, two other popular eateries – locally sourced café (and Baltimore Fishbowl fave) Charmington’s and Baltimore Sun-approved grill Meet 27 – also made their debut, along with talk of a Wal-Mart-powered 25th Street Station Planned Unit Development (PUD). Unsurprisingly, the influx of business interest received an ambivalent response. Chris Merriam, a 29-year-old Remington homeowner, points to the Wal-Mart development as being particularly divisive.
“I think a lot of us have mixed emotions,” he says, recalling the many public hearings preceding the PUD’s approval. “On one hand, I saw the anti-Wal-Mart documentary. I know they’re an evil corporation or whatever. But there are a lot of people in the neighborhood who aren’t privileged white yuppies. They really want it. They already took the 27 Bus an hour to Port Covington to go to Wal-Mart.” A former GRIA vice president and current Morgan State grad student in urban planning, Merriam and GRIA ultimately decided to negotiate with Wal-Mart, attempting to fudge together a metro version of its sprawl-sized superstore.
“We worked on a comprehensive traffic calming plan to slow down traffic on Huntingdon Avenue and Howard Street,” he says. “So I think we got something out of it.”
Amanda Rothischild, co-owner of Charmington’s, takes a similar perspective.
“I’m not worried,” she says. “People are coming into the neighborhood who weren’t before, for us and Meet 27 and things like that. If they’re coming for Wal-Mart, it’s still going to be more people.” Rothischild also points to the PUD’s less discussed amenities, like smaller storefronts and a promised 80-to-90 onsite residences, as net gains. “I just don’t see it as a threat,” she continues. “The alternative is that the space lays vacant, which is not good for the neighborhood.”
Not everyone in Remington takes such a sanguine attitude towards area development, however. According to Meet 27 co-owner Paul Goldberg, many of the neighborhood’s older residents have remained skeptical of such commercial growth in an otherwise residential area.
“I think our restaurant is a microcosm of the conflict,” he says, noting an appeals process that temporarily grounded his liquor license. “When I bought the [Meet 27] building, I thought this was a C+ neighborhood going up to a B, and I still think that. But you’re seeing a small contingent of people that simply don’t want the community to change.”
Beyond new businesses, he suggests a newer area demographic – younger residents and graduate students from the nearby Hopkins campus – as a catalyst for Remington’s sudden burst of “life.”
“You see a young, vibrant student population of young professionals moving in there,” he says. “They want to see their community provide them with entertainment, something that uplifts the environment.”
By Goldberg’s lights, much of the “older” pushback has come from the long-lived Remington Neighborhood Association (RNA) and, more specifically, its president Joan Floyd. When asked by e-mail to comment, Floyd preferred to speak only as RNA president, in which capacity she both confirmed and rebutted Goldberg’s claims.
“As far as the Howard and 27th Street building [where Meet 27 is located], the RNA’s position for the past few years has been reasonable, consistent, and well known – that any business in the building should close at 9:00 p.m. nightly and there should be no alcoholic beverage sales or consumption,” she says in one message. While this would seem to bear out the RNA’s general opposition to Meet 27, who have adopted a BYOB policy as their appeals process resolves, Floyd abstracts the RNA’s role – if any – in actual litigation.
“Government agency decisions, such as those of the liquor board and zoning board, are routinely subject to appeal, known as ‘judicial review,’” she says, referencing mistakes made in Meet 27’s license application process. “Some people prefer to blame the RNA for the consequences of their own action and decisions.”
While small ideological battles roil on, Remington’s profile only continues to grow. Just last month, the city block of city-owned rowhouses – stonewalled and unsellable for a decade – were released for development bids. And, as the 25th Street PUD moves forward, even more visitors will eyeball the once sleepy neighborhood. Which is just the way Merriam likes it.
“It’s an uphill battle,” he says. “The core of Remington is still very desolate and undeveloped. But there’s a lot of potential for growth. In Remington, everyone wants to say yes.”