Photos by David Stuck
The revitalization of Baltimore’s most un-kosher neighborhood, historic Pigtown, is being led — perhaps surprisingly — by a Jew.
Ben Hyman is the executive director of Pigtown Main Street, one of 10 Main Street programs sponsored by the Baltimore Development Corporation. Though he doesn’t eat pork, his world, in many ways, revolves around the hoofed animal.
“If you care about a city, you want to see its neighborhoods succeed,” said Hyman, 25, who grew up in Mount Washington, graduated from The Park School and returned to Baltimore after studying geography at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
He worked in City Hall for a time before spotting a job posting for the Main Streets program in Pigtown.
Having not spent much time in the area aside from parking there for an occasional Orioles or Ravens game, when he landed the job, Hyman half jokingly consulted his rabbi at Bolton Street Synagogue — where his father had been president — about whether or not he should take the offer. While the rabbi supported his new career path, said Hyman, “he encouraged me not to eat pork.”
Baltimore’s Main Streets program, which began in 2000, is designed to attract businesses and support jobs in designated areas by providing access to marketing, financial and technical support for business owners. In Pigtown, that area is a three-block corridor of Washington Boulevard, approximately between West Barre Street and Wyeth Street.
The neighborhood’s name can be traced to the 19th century, when the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad would release its porcine cargo to be collected in the local slaughterhouses. Urban renewal efforts attempted to rebrand the Southwestern neighborhood as Washington Village, but many residents refused, and the name “Pigtown” has largely stuck.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the neighborhood west of Oriole Park at Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium had a reputation for drugs and violence.
“What we’re facing here is kind of competing forces,” said Hyman, noting that the neighborhood sits between downtown Baltimore and notorious West Baltimore. “Pigtown is still work-ing through some of those issues.”
Hyman proudly stated that nine new businesses have moved into Pigtown’s commercial district since January 2013, reducing the area’s commercial vacancy by 57 percent. He was equally proud of the district’s ability to retain businesses.
A lot of the program’s attention has gone toward improving the neighborhood’s curb appeal, he said. In addition to arranging partnerships with local landscaping companies to provide trees and flowers for the sidewalks, the Main Street program has been working to enforce an existing ordinance that bans bars on windows. This means getting many local shop owners to remove them, a project Hyman said is ongoing but largely successful.
“People come here and get an idea about a neighborhood just by walking around,” said Hyman. “It may seem ticky-tack, but to us it’s vital.”
It was enough to sell Garba Diop, owner of Afro Fashion and Art, on the Baltimore neighborhood.
“When I came here I didn’t see any fences on windows,” said Diop, a native of Senegal. “I said, ‘This area is safe.’”
Diop worked as a cab driver in New York City for 17 years before moving to Baltimore to join his family. When he decided to open his own business selling African jewelry, bongos, bags, shoes, clothes and art inaddition to staples such as cell-phone accessories, he found the Main Street program could help him get started.