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Won't you be my neighbor?

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On a clear day, all of Baltimore is visible from Adam Meister's flat roof. So are trashed alleys and boarded-up row houses. But where others may see ghosts of a happier time in the city's history, he sees resurrection.

Mr. Meister is the founder of a grass-roots campaign to revitalize the city - or for starters, at least one block of it. For two years he's been hosting a website, passing out fliers, and working closely with a core group of people interested in buying and rehabilitating neglected houses on a targeted block.

It's largely about the quest for affordable housing. But Meister's vision is much broader. The 27-year-old wants to reverse Baltimore's brain drain, appealing to hometown pride and introducing the city to people who, like him, grew up in its suburban "islands." He calls it the Rybby generation - Risk-taking Young Baltimoreans - but his buy-a-block campaign is also attracting empty nesters, a constituency he hadn't considered before.

"You know, like in 1967 when everybody went to San Francisco to protest war - we've got a war going on here on our own soil," Meister says, his eyebrows arching as revolutionary zeal flashes across his face. "People could put their bodies on the line by living here. I can see it like a movement - people moving to Baltimore."

The war imagery might stem from the fact that he just spent his first night in the three-story building he bought in October. There's a new alarm system and plenty of locks on the doors, but he keeps a metal baseball bat nearby. Break-ins and drug deals are a regular topic of conversation among homeowners here.

With four houses bought by members of his group so far, and another two in negotiation, Meister's dream is slowly becoming reality. But it's not happening in a vacuum. The city is in the midst of Project 5000, an effort to reclaim abandoned properties and get them into the hands of new owners and developers. Restrictions on suburban construction here and closer to Washington, D.C., are prompting more house shoppers to consider Baltimore proper. And with violent crime down about 30 percent since Mayor Martin O'Malley was elected in 1999, there's hope for reversing a longstanding pattern of flight from the city.


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