The Price of Progress
Gentrification has Brought Improvements to Frederick…But at What Cost?
You can see how I’m sitting here with no customers, explains Walter “Pete” Sewell, who’s been cutting hair on West All Saints Street since 1972. It’s a beautiful evening and Market Street is crowded with shoppers and diners, but the octo-genarian barber has little to do but doze in the tiny shop’s single chair, surrounded by the yellowing newspaper clippings that cover the walls—reminders of a time decades ago when the three blocks of West All Saints Street were as bustling as Market Street is today.
“Then, it was a black neighborhood,” says Sewell, “they had a pool hall and a restaurant and all that.” And just like Market Street, the neighborhood was a magnet, a place where people gathered from all across the region. “Historically, it was a center in the African-American community, not just for Frederick County, but surrounding counties,” says Willie Mahone, president of the Frederick County chapter of the NAACP.
“Historically” is the key word in that quote, however. “The neighborhood that existed 40 years ago is no longer there, the character of this community has changed,” says Mahone. “There’s a couple black families that still own houses on Saints Street, but other than them it’s changed.
The pool hall and restaurants are long gone, as is the Knights of Pythias Lodge, which has been renovated into a home. And AMVETS Post No. 5, another of the fraternal lodges that served as a focal point for the community, has recently been sold. “They’re remodeling it, whoever bought it. I don’t know what they’re going to do with it, though—turn it into apartments, I guess,” says Sewell.
The crew that’s busy gutting the old AMVETS building, rapidly filling the dumpster out front with old plaster and paneling, is only the latest in a long string of remodeling projects that have remade Downtown Frederick over the past several decades. “When my husband and I bought our place and several rental properties on East Third Street, they were in deplorable shape and it was a great time to make an investment,” says Truby LeGarde, a facilitator for Neighborhood Advisory Council 11 and a Downtown resident since the early ’80s. “At that time, a number of people were moving in and taking homes that had been turned into apartments in the ’40s and turning them back into single-family homes.”
Downtown was a very different place then. Still reeling from the damage wrought by two devastating floods and hollowed out by competition from suburban malls and shopping centers, empty storefronts out-numbered shops and restaurants. “When we moved here the sidewalks rolled up at six. There was no reason to go Downtown,” says Alderwoman Donna Kuzemchak, who has lived in Frederick since 1985.
Fast-forward more than three decades and Downtown Frederick has gone from flood-ravaged ghost town to a haunt of haute cuisine and boutique shopping. But with each new ribbon-cutting, each new “ten best” list that features Frederick’s name and every magazine article or travel blog trumpeting Downtown’s turnaround, some residents—even those who played a pivotal role in Downtown’s revitalization—wonder if it’s worth the price, and if someday they will end up like Pete Sewell, with nothing but memories to remind them of the community they once knew. “Frederick has always had that sort of patina that I fear it is in danger of losing,” says LeGarde. “We’re losing that real mixture of folks that were really always in town. With more people moving in, you have fewer characters hanging out.”
It’s a concern that’s become common in bigger cities like New York and San Francisco, where worries about gentrification—the displacement of low-income communities, often home to minority residents, by affluent newcomers—has given way to concern over what’s come to be called “hyper-gentrification.” “Gentrification itself has been gentrified,” writes Jeremiah Moss, author of Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul. In his book, and the blog that launched it, Moss laments the passing of the old, bohemian New York that was a product of gentrification’s edgier early days—the East Village dive bars, drag clubs and Soho artist’s lofts that have been displaced by condos, chain retail and the super-rich, producing a New York that, in Moss’ mind, has become a “Potemkin village of what the city used to be.”
Carroll Creek Linear Park may not be Manhattan’s High Line, but there are echoes of Moss’ “Potempkin village” in LaGarde’s concern about “patina.” And others, such as community activist Watu Mwariama, believe that city government has made deliberate efforts to push lower-income people aside for the sake of upscale development.
“Our family was the first family to move into John Hanson,” says Mwariama, referring to the former John Hanson Apartments. It and the adjacent Taney Apartments—public housing on Downtown’s north side—were demolished in 2005 to make way for a new development that mixed low-income apartments, some of them managed by the city’s Housing Authority, with market-rate homes. According to Mwariama, the public housing residents “were expecting to be able to come back in and transition from John Hanson to these homes. They made all these promises to the community about being able to move back in and it was all the same song and dance. Very few of them who were promised apartments eventually came back.”
Twelve years later, the community that took Hanson-Taney’s place—North Pointe—is all but built out. Two blocks away on East Fifth Street is Maxwell Square, another recently completed new townhouse development. And the influx of homeowners they represent has had a dramatic impact on the area’s demographics. The median household income in Downtown’s north end, which stretches from Fourth to Seventh streets, between East Street and Frederick Memorial Hospital, jumped 46 percent in just five years, according to Census estimates.
Downtown’s core likewise saw a dramatic increase. Between Fourth Street and Carroll Creek, median household income went up by 40 percent—and that’s without any major new construction projects coming online. “What I’ve noticed on our street is people who buy a house as a weekend place and are planning to retire here,” says LaGarde, pointing to an influx of affluent empty-nesters.
And the impact of those well-heeled buyers ripples across Downtown, sending younger, more middle-class buyers shopping in what were once working-class and minority enclaves on the north and south ends. “I just saw a townhouse on South Street sell for $300,000, and that’s not abnormal there,” says Alderwoman Kuzemchak, who is a Realtor.
The demographics in some places aren’t changing as quickly as the prices, though. “When you look at the census data, the south end of town is still a low-income census tract,” says Mike Spurrier, director of the Frederick Community Action Agency, which provides services for low-income residents. Stretching from Market to Jefferson streets, median household income in the census tract that includes the old West All Saints Street community is the lowest in the entire county and roughly half that of Downtown’s core. “There’s a greater mix of incomes,” says Spurrier, “but I’m not really sure there’s less low-income residents now, although it’s shifted from Saints Street to the south and west.”
Finding a Balance
That movement isn’t the only thing Spurrier’s noticed, either, after almost 30 years with the agency. “What I’ve really seen change is that it is a lot more difficult for our clients to rent something affordable in Downtown Frederick,” he says—a difficulty that’s exacerbated by the revitalization that’s brought an influx of new homeowners. “In some ways, that’s a good thing,” says Spurrier, “but we have to find ways to balance it and preserve some affordable housing.”
Ensuring that affordable housing remains a part of Downtown’s future is the goal of one project currently under construction at 520 N. Market Street, less than a block away from North Pointe. “It was originally built as a boys’ school and then it was an elementary school. Then it was converted to Frederick Community College—they had some classrooms there—and then it was a county office building,” says Hugh Gordon, vice president of pro-gramming and development with Interfaith Housing Alliance, a nonprofit affordable housing developer based in Frederick. After the building was declared surplus by the county, Interfaith partnered with Ohio-based PIRHL Development to purchase the building and, through additions and adaptive reuse, convert it into 59 affordable apartments reserved for renters with incomes of 20 to 60 percent of area median income. “Hospital employees, restaurant workers Downtown, they are perfect candidates—it’s a walk-to-where-you-work kind of environment,” says Gordon.
Interfaith is also working with Conifer Realty, a dev-eloper that recently completed construction of Sinclair Way, a 71-unit apartment development tucked between South and Patrick streets, just east of Jefferson Street. “We’re not involved in the leasing, we’re providing supportive services. We work with a lot of the residents on credit counseling and financial counseling to achieve the financial qualifications that they need in order to live there,” says Gordon.
Construction financing is just as complicated. Both developments—as well as the earlier conversion of the old Francis Scott Key Hotel into 46 affordable apartments—are dependent upon Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits to provide rents lower than market rate. “The cost of infill is prohibitive without the tax credits,” says LaGarde. And, for the moment, the city’s Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit ordinance doesn’t require developers of higher-end housing to set some units aside as affordable.
“Whether it’s good or bad, the majority of two boards of aldermen have passed a fee-in-lieu ordinance,” says Spurrier, referring to the loophole that lets developers pay into an affordable housing fund rather than build lower-priced units.
Alderwoman Kuzemchak was in the minority when the ordinance last came up for a vote. “If you’re going to have a fee-in-lieu you should make that fee so high that it should be cost-effective to build the housing,” she says. But according to Spurrier, the money raised by the fee has helped alleviate the pressures brought on by gentrification. “The city provided several deferred loans for affordable housing—a $250,000 loan for Sinclair Way, a $100,000 loan for Way Station and a loan for Advocates for Homeless Families for transitional housing,” he says. “We’ve been able to provide settlement assistance to first-time homebuyers.” The money has also funded minor repairs and weatherization for low-income homeowners. “We’ve been able to help people stay in their homes,” says Spurrier.
Although, even if they do stay, how long will they recognize the city that surrounds them? “I told the fellow that bought the building that they ought to save that sign,” says Pete Sewell, standing on the stoop of his barbershop and gesturing towards the old AMVETS building a few doors down.
“But it’ll go in the dumpster, I guess.”