"It was a terrific place to grow up," remembered Barry Levinson, film director and resident of Forest Park from 1948 to 1963.
"We had everything we needed for day-to-day living within a few blocks; we never had to drive anywhere. There were three movie theaters within walking distance, the Ambassador and the Gwynn at Gwynn Oak Junction and the Forest at Liberty and Garrison."
Forest Park is located between Hilton Street and Hillsdale Road along Liberty Heights Avenue. Liberty Heights is the title of Levinson's coming movie about Baltimore in the 1950s.
Traditional neighborhoods such as Forest Park are starting to attract buyers because of the very qualities that made the community special for Levinson.
"More people are buying single-family houses and rehabbing them," said Ernest Gayles, a resident and Realtor with ERA-Caton Realty in Ellicott City.
"They know they can get a spacious, well-built, single-family detached house that's close to everything for an extremely affordable price."
Prices range from the low $40,000 range for a two-story Craftsman-like cottage up to the low $100,000s for a six-bedroom, three-story house like the one on Springdale Avenue in which Levinson grew up.
"If you took pictures of some of the best houses in Forest Park, then shuffled them together with pictures of homes in Homeland and some other neighborhoods, you couldn't tell the difference," said Joseph Henley Sr., president of the Forest Park Neighborhood Association.
Henley concurs that the neighborhood is in a convenient location, being but a few minutes from Baltimore City Community College and Mondawmin Mall, and along two main bus routes to downtown.
Downtown seemed far away to Levinson when he was a boy. "When I was shooting 'Liberty Heights' last fall, out of curiosity I measured the distance from downtown to my home; it was just 6 1/2 miles," he said with a laugh.
From the 1960s to the late 1990s, Forest Park went into a decline. Many of the large homes were sold to developers who divided them up for apartments.
"That's pretty much stopped," according to Gayles, who moved into the neighborhood in 1957. But Henley says some owners still try to get by zoning regulations that prohibit such conversions.
"There's always a problem with the properties owned by absentee landlords," Henley said. "They don't keep them up." A typical block in Forest Park has neat, well-kept homes, many of which may sit alongside a property that's boarded up or overrun with weeds.
Henley and the neighborhood association want to come up with a long-range plan to physically upgrade Forest Park. One of Henley's ideas is to develop a relationship with Morgan State University's school of architecture to assist with ideas to improve landscaping and exterior renovations.
"We're going to be a test tube case for turning a neighborhood around," he added.
The neighborhood has been successful in getting the city to demolish abandoned homes. Henley hopes to see developers build on those empty lots. There has been some new building recently; three new houses have gone up on Powhatan Avenue across from Lake Ashburton.
The shopping district at Liberty Heights Avenue and Garrison Boulevard is also due for improvement.
Pending approval from the City Council, a new red brick Walgreen drugstore is scheduled to be built in the 3800 block of Liberty Heights Avenue, said Michael Johnson, the Department of Housing and Community Development's business assistance coordinator for the area.
"There's also a plan to upgrade the facades of the businesses." he added.
Forest Park is flanked by Hanlon Park on the east and Hillsdale on the west. Hanlon Park is used more by the community, according to Henley.
"One of our main goals is to have a recreational center built there that young people and the elderly can use and to get the tennis courts resurfaced," said Henley, who has had a difficult time getting the city to take care of Hanlon.
Forest Park was actually a second try at suburban development in the area straddling Garrison Boulevard.
In 1892, a developer named Frank Callaway formed a company to buy 32 acres from the John S. Gittings estate, subdivided it into lots and called the area North Walbrook. But, because of the poor electric streetcar service, the development failed.
Callaway and his investors regrouped in 1901 and renamed the development Forest Park. By then, transit service had improved and Garrison Boulevard was paved from Walbrook Junction to West Arlington. Lots were sold to middle-class buyers who hired their own builders to construct homes.
Forest Park became one of the largest and most popular suburban developments in the city. The Sun reported in 1909, "From the number of beautiful homes that have been erected and sold in Forest Park it is evident that this is among Baltimore's most sought after suburbs."
The community was involved in a unique legal case in 1912 when it persuaded the state legislature to ban the building of rowhouses that it believed threatened property values and public health. The Court of Appeals overturned the ban in 1915.
Since he left Baltimore, Levinson has never lived anywhere that has had Forest Park's feel of neighborhood. The closest he's found is where he's now living in Northern California, he explained.
Levinson was heartened by the rehab work he saw in his old neighborhood while filming last fall. "Strong communities are vital to the city, and it all begins block by block," he said.
While physical improvements are important, to Levinson a community needs to have interaction between its residents, schools and businesses, as Forest Park had when he was growing up. "We all were supportive of each other, and that's what makes a community successful," he said.
Average commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 12 min.
Public schools: Forest Park High School, Garrison Middle School, LibertyElementary School, Hilton Elementary School
ZIP codes: 21207, 21216Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun