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Saving Essex: Baltimore County Will Try To Help One Of Its Most At-Risk Communities

Credit: John Lee

Baltimore County is planning a full court press to save Essex. The economically depressed waterfront community on the county’s east side is seeing high rates of crime, COVID-19 and unemployment.

The county is planning to pump money and resources into Essex, in what it hopes will be a national model of how to save a community.

Cliff O’Connell has lived in Essex for 60 years. For half of that time, he’s owned Cliff’s Hi-Tech Auto Body Shop. O’Connell recalls hosting a sleepover for members of his daughter’s cheerleading squad years ago. A couple of parents didn’t let their daughters come because of the reputation Essex has.

“I remembered that,” O’Connell said. “And back then, Essex was starting to go downhill. It’s gotten worse.”

Data from the county backs that up.

From 2017 to 2019 there were 11 homicides in the 21221 Essex zip code, more than any other in the county. Crime topped the list of problems brought up at a recent community meeting. Leah Biddinger said she listens to the police scanner every night.

“Our guys are running,” Biddinger said. “They are busy, busy, busy busy. So, I’m putting my plea in that we need more officers in our precinct.”

But the problems go beyond crime. Essex has a high poverty rate. Its unemployment rate is 7.2%, well above the county’s 4.8%. It has the highest number of applications for the county’s eviction prevention program. The Essex zip code is the 7th highest in COVID-19 cases in the county.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski is launching in Essex what he said is a first of its kind sustained recovery for a community.

“We sort of have this fork in the road where you’re investing in turning a community back to the real opportunity that it has versus letting it slip,” Olszewski said.

The county will use some of the $161 million it’s getting from the American Rescue Plan to pay for the effort to save Essex. Olszewski said it will include police, the schools, code enforcement, public works and the health department.

It’s too early to say what that will look like or what the price tag will be, but he wants guidance from Essex residents.

Olszewski said, “So, it’s not just ‘we’re the government, we’re here to help.’ It’s also, what does the community see as a need.”

The community’s decline began decades ago.

Until now, Essex has been a political stepchild, according to John Dedie, a political science professor at the Community College of Baltimore County, because the power on the county’s east side was in Dundalk.

“It wasn’t focused on what we could do for Essex,” Dedie said.

Paul Blitz, the historian for the Heritage Society of Essex and Middle River, said the community’s fall can be traced to a loss of jobs and stores. Employers like Bethlehem Steel and Lockheed Martin disappeared or withered. Blitz said the business district declined because it could not compete with shopping malls.

“Into the 70s, you could buy anything you wanted without leaving Essex,” Blitz said. “You had Tom McAn shoes where we used to buy shoes for the school year. You had Robert Hall clothing. You had Frank’s Menswear. You had Montgomery Wards for appliances and sleds and bicycles.”

Several years ago, Essex resident Cliff O’Connell said he ran into a landlord of a rundown building along the main drag, Eastern Boulevard. O’Connell asked him why he didn’t fix it.

“He said ‘look at this place. Why would I put any money into that?’ And I kind of looked around and I was like, I guess you’re right.”

O’Connell is part of a volunteer group that has been cleaning up Eastern Boulevard as well as boarding up vacant homes.

Sharon Kihn, executive director of the Chesapeake Gateway Chamber of Commerce said it’s making a difference. Some businesses and homeowners are renovating, and new people are moving in.

“It’s little by little,” Kihn said. “When we started this process, we said it’s an elephant and you can only take one bite at a time and do the best that you can with it.”

Kihn said there is hope now in Essex that things might get better.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2