This historic Baltimore block was going to disappear forever. So we raced to tell its story

In a city with 17,000 vacant buildings, The Washington Post chronicled the life and death of a single block built in 1905 that has housed generations of families.

By Steve Hendrix

Walls may not talk, but they do tell stories. This month, The Washington Post set out to profile a single block of Baltimore rowhouses being demolished. We started with the blank faces of boarded-up buildings in a city with 17,000 of them. But through interviews, old documents and a couple of lucky encounters, the human history of these century-old rowhouses near Johns Hopkins Hospital began to reveal itself. This is the story of how we reached into the past before Baltimore tore down a piece of its blight — and its history.

[Read and watch the full story: Life, death and demolition]

Our search began with Baltimore housing officials, who provided us with a list of houses slated for demolition. Even better, they gave us the name of a small nonprofit, Details, scheduled to bring down the 900 block of North Bradford Street with its crew of ex-offenders and hard-to-employ locals from the neighborhood. In the dusty days we spent with them, they helped us understand East Baltimore’s evolution.

Max Pollock, the group’s personable supervisor, was a link both to recent residents and to the block’s deeper past, which he had researched as an architecture and history buff.

He introduced us to Mable Olds, a 69-year-old African American woman who was the last owner of №936 and who had recently traded her old house for a newly refurbished one around the corner.

Mabel Olds, right, stands in the doorway of her former home as residents and relatives of residents gather at the N. Bradford row houses slated for demolition on July, 13, 2016 in Baltimore, MD. Mabel was the last official resident of the house on the right. (Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Pollack also knew something about the 1905 builder of the houses, a turn-of-the-century developer who sold many of them to immigrants from what was called Austro-Bohemia on period documents, now known as the Czech Republic. Slowly, the Bradford block began to feel less like a patch of decay and more like a place with a vibrant past.

The 900 block of North Bradford Street in 1907. (John Dubas/Maryland Historical Society)

“The act of walking through the various houses, seeing the wallpapers, peeling paints, even some remaining personal effects, got me ruminating on the passing of time,” said Bill O’Leary, the Washington Post photographer who shot more than 8,000 images for the story. “Gas lines were revealed behind the ceilings, indicating that when these homes were built, they were illuminated by gaslight.”

We made more than a dozen visits to Bradford Street in the weeks before demolition, joining conversations on nearby front stoops that provided a trove of neighborhood history. Post video journalists Whitney Shefte and McKenna Ewen filmed from above, flying a drone over some of the city’s most abandoned areas and causing some concern below. “People think you’re from the police,” they were told.

On one trip, I spent hours in the photo archives of the Maryland Historical Society. From my desk, I pored over records archived by genealogy websites. The immigrants who first called Bradford home appeared in handwritten census documents starting in 1910, including, in №936, the Crossonts.

I traced the family’s progress through the 20th century, as Baltimore boomed and then declined and as white workers migrated to the suburbs. After cold-calling nearly every Crossont in Maryland, I found Chester Crossont, a garage owner in Baltimore County. His father, Ernest, was born in the house in 1910. “I knew it was somewhere in that part of Baltimore, but I had no idea where,” he exulted.

Chester Crossont wanders through the crumbling remains of a row house his grandfather owned before its demolition. (Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

One day, when Whitney was shooting video on the block, a young man pulled up to the curb. He was Jonathan Todd, a carpenter from outside the city who had, for reasons that he could not fully explain, decided that day to pay his first visit to the house where his grandfather Ed Mifkovic had been born. His parents, aunts and uncles had regaled him with tales of family gatherings at №930, where his great-grandmother had lived until the 1960s. But Todd, 32, had never seen it before. He marveled at the posters on each door, announcing that the century-old block was scheduled to become a grassy lot just weeks later.

“It was fate that I came now,” he said.

Jonathan Todd explores the house his great-grandfather owned on North Bradford Street before it is demolished. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

On the Friday before the houses came down, Todd came back to Bradford at our invitation, bringing faded midcentury photos of his ancestors crammed around the table in one of the block’s identical tiny kitchens. Crossont came too, bringing his wife and grown sons. We met at №936, where Crossont’s grandfather had been the first owner, and were joined by Olds, who was its last. They talked for more than an hour about their shared history, finally hugging on the sidewalk, connected forever by an address.

Chester Crossont, left, gives Mabel Olds a hug as residents and relatives of residents gather in one of the N. Bradford row houses before their demolition on July, 13, 2016 in Baltimore, MD. From left are Mabel Olds, Chester Crossont, Christopher Crossont, Jonathon Todd, Jeannie Crossont. (Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

“Witnessing moments like that helped me better understand why buildings are not just structures but are physical connections between generations,” Shefte said.

A week later, the block was gone. But its stories remain.

Panoramic view of a row of houses on N.Bradford street, slated for demolition on June, 22, 2016 in Baltimore. (Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

You can read the full Washington Post story here.

Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team. Follow @SBHendrix