Hoes 'Heights knits generations

Special to The Sun

Hoes 'Heights rests serenely behind the water tower on Roland Avenue; it's nestled behind Owl Carpet Works on Cold Spring Lane. The bustle and hum of the nearby commercial strips of its bigger neighbors -- Hampden and Roland Park -- seem worlds away.

When people move to this leafy, tucked-away spot, they tend to stay. And when their children grow up and move out to the suburbs, they tend, more and more, to find their way back -- with a new generation in tow.

This is not a recent development, as a quick glance over the history of this historically black neighborhood will show.

It began in the late 1800s when Charles Grandison Hoes Jr., the ambitious son of slave parents, purchased a prime piece of real estate and portioned off sections for his children on which to build houses.

These wood frame houses -- on Dewey and Providence streets -- still stand.

Mozelle Johnson, an in-law to the Hoes family who first came here in 1941, pulls out copies of an 1880 census of the area. It's filled with lists of Hoes and Peters -- another prominent local family.

"They said he [Hoes] once owned this whole hill, and all the people that bought property and built houses, he sold it to them. They were not always relations, [but] all of them stem from him," she said.

The community -- some still refer to it as "Hoes' Hill" -- includes rowhouses dating from the early 1900s, as well as newer, smaller ones dating from the mid- to late-1940s, built for returning servicemen on land that was sold during the Depression.

James Gunther, 90, was one such GI. He bought his Evans Chapel Road house in 1947. "I'm going to be here til they plant me," he said firmly.

He left the Army in 1945 and married in 1947. "My wife's father told me that every bird needs a cage, and he wasn't going to let his bird go 'til I had a cage for her. So I had to find a place of shelter," he laughs.

But Hoes 'Heights turned out to be more than shelter for James and his late wife, Gladys; it became a labor of love.

James Gunther, former president of the Hoes 'Heights Improvement Association, and Gladys, its former secretary, were community leaders who were instrumental in teaming up with the Greater Homewood Community Association to help obtain services that were often denied by the city.

As a 1980 editorial in the Messenger put it: "Though householders and taxpayers, they were repeatedly denied basic city services that their white neighbors took for granted, such as RTC street lights and well-maintained roads with storm run-offs. When their association leaders went to City Hall to complain, they were brushed off."

The editorial goes on to cite then-recent improvements and concludes: "The less powerful neighborhood associations can only expect to see results when they band together."

Band together they did -- and do. As Maria Coles, a resident of the community since 1948 put it, "This has always been a do-it-yourself place."

Coles would like to see a sign for the neighborhood. "I would like to have a sign that said Hoes 'Heights . I would like to have a pretty sign like you see the signs around the area."

But highest on her personal wish list is improvements for the small playground. If she can get that fixed up, she laughs, "I will have accomplished my mission in life.

"We don't have but a small tract of land. We can't get too much on it. But if we could just get a little sliding board for the kids, it would be nice."

Perhaps she feels it's such a pressing need because she sees more children moving back into the neighborhood, a phenomenon also remarked upon by Gunther. "Children are coming back now. They are bringing with them 2, 3, 4, 5," he said.

"All the [former] Boy Scouts and Brownies and Girl Scouts and what-not in the community, they're coming back," Coles said.

She listed the attractions of the area: four transit lines -- at University Parkway, Roland Avenue, 41st Street and Falls Road -- "You don't really even have to have a car."

Nearby schools, including Roland Park, Poly and Western.

"And," she added wryly, "they come back to their grandmothers to raise their kids." She remembers when it wasn't just the grandmothers who kept an eye out. "Every person in this community was a mother and grandmother I would speak to Mozelle's children, Mozelle would speak to my children. My son right now tells everybody wherever he goes, 'I had so many mothers in my community."

She invoked the expression popularized by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, "It takes a whole village to raise a child."

"It has been a village like that. It has been a village."

That cohesiveness was one reason Anthony DePastina, a University of Baltimore law student, and his girlfriend, Theresa Tridone, a chef, moved into the area from Bolton Hill. They are part of a shift that has changed the demographics of the area in roughly the last 10 years from exclusively black to roughly equally racially mixed.

"It retains the character of a very tight-knit, close area. Everybody knows everybody around here, nobody's really a stranger," DePastina said.

It's something he remembers from his youth. "When I grew up in East Baltimore, you had like 20 moms."

He adds with a certain amount of wonder: "The grandchildren and grand-nieces of the original owner [Hoes] live right behind me."

"Hoes 'Heights : A Neighborhood Plan" was used as a reference for this article.

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