Community in North Baltimore hopes to evolve into a 'neighborhood of mosaics'

As an artist, Tamara Payne knows how to take small pieces and create a colorful whole.

When she moved to Harwood 10 years ago, she saw an area with vacant houses and problems with trash and crime, but she took it upon herself to beautify the area.

“Thinking about it now, it was kind of like divine order,” she says. “I was drawn to this community because it was kind of like a blank canvas.”

It started with cleaning up her sidewalk on East Lorraine Avenue. Next, Payne placed baskets and flowers around her block. Then she created a mosaic design for her house number. Eventually, her neighbors wanted the colorful glass artworks, too — and were willing to pay.

“Once I started doing them, it was sort of like a domino effect,” she says.

Payne’s mosaic designs are scattered throughout Harwood, with a mural at The Barclay School and other house numbers and signs on display. Thanks to her efforts, some hope the area can become known as the “neighborhood of mosaics.”

Located in North Baltimore, Harwood is a small community in the greater Charles Village area with vibrant rowhouses known as “painted ladies.” The neighborhood features open spaces such as a community garden, Harwood Park and 26ers Park. For a time, Harwood was home to old Oriole Park, which was built on 29th Street; the stadium burned down in 1944.

Harwood has nearby amenities such as the 32nd Street Farmers Market, open year round, as well as Peabody Heights Brewery and The BBQ, a popular new restaurant on Greenmount Avenue. Residents point to their neighborhood’s central location, diversity and sense of community as highlights.

Payne hopes to foster that sense of community with her art.

The Maryland Institute College of Art grad, who teaches at Baltimore City Community College, also organizes community art projects and leads workshops at the 29th Street Community Center.

There are a lot of things Payne says she enjoys about Harwood, such as the local businesses and seasonal festivals. But the interactions with her neighbors are what she has really grown to love about the area.

Kieran Dowdy, president of the Harwood Community Association, echoes Payne’s sentiments. Dowdy, who moved to the community in 2013, describes Harwood as a friendly, “tight-knit community of people looking out for one another.”

In addition, he says, he enjoys Harwood’s diversity.

“There are longstanding African-American families next to younger professional white folks who are next to older white families,” he says. “It’s really a great cross-section of families, and that was really important to me to be in that kind of environment where I was able to meet people with different perspectives, different backgrounds, and kind of learn from that as a resident and make my life richer.”

Dowdy says the community association meetings on the first Monday of each month often feature speakers who discuss issues concerning the neighborhood or provide resources such as job training.

One of the association’s big projects right now is attracting new development. Dowdy says the group is focusing on the Greenmount Avenue corridor — from 25th to 29th streets — to promote growth and redevelop spaces into “meaningful commercial and mixed-use development.”

There are contractors and developers who are interested, he says. The goal is “to spread what’s happening in the neighborhood on the residential streets out into the community at large along Greenmount, so that we have not just a place to live but a place to go and shop and eat,” Dowdy says.

While he hopes to boost the community with new businesses, Dowdy says he’s still mindful of gentrification and the impact it could have on residents and housing affordability.

“Gentrification is always a concern. ... It’s something that we think about, that we worry about — that the neighborhood continues to be affordable as houses are renovated and sold [and] property values go up. So far we’ve been fortunate that it’s not displacing anybody.”

Dowdy says the community association is searching for ideas to ensure Harwood remains inclusive.

In 2016, Harwood had a median home sale price of $122,950. Ryan Parnell, president of Renewable Rowhomes, says prices make Harwood an ideal neighborhood for first-time homebuyers.

Parnell works as a general contractor redeveloping homes on Whitridge Avenue. He bought his house on the block in 2005 and then gutted and redid it. Back then, only about five houses on Whitridge Avenue were occupied, he says.

“It was a tough street to live on,” he says. “There was definitely a lot of open-market drug activity. And that sort of lends itself to the nuisance issues that vacant houses have, too. A lot of rats. Some crimes here and there.

“It was rough in the very beginning getting started. But over time, it’s gotten a lot better.”

Parnell bought his home for $1 — and even then, he says, it took him four months to decide to close the deal.

“When I first remember seeing Whitridge Avenue, I remember saying, ‘Who would want to move onto a street like that?’ Because it was completely boarded-up.”

Now, out of the 50 homes on his block, about 42 are occupied, he says.

He says rehabbed rowhouses in the area start at $150,000 and go up to $200,000, adding that “everything else has kind of skyrocketed.”

“You can get a 1,300-square-foot house for $150,000. That’s a great deal,” he says. “People are paying twice that much two streets over. It’s one of the last places in the Charles Village area that has those type of low prices.”

Parnell says he believes the prices have something to do with Harwood still being considered a “transitional neighborhood.”

“People have their perceptions about the neighborhood, a lot of stereotypes. If you kind of see past all that, then you could see why it’s an attractive neighborhood.”

Parnell is now working with Payne on a community art project called the Butterfly Effect.

The idea behind it, Payne says, is to create butterfly mosaics, which represent growth in the community and the overall transition of Harwood.

Payne is in charge of the glass mosaics, while Parnell does the carpentry, fixing the mosaics on Corian, a durable plastic, and then displaying them on houses in the neighborhood.

“The neighborhood beautification is basically making everything contiguous,” Parnell says. “If you go on any block in Harwood, you can see some mosaics, whether it’s address plaques or signage. And now with the Butterfly Effect, it will be a lot more visible along Barclay Street.”

Parnell and Dowdy say they have long admired Payne’s influence in the neighborhood.

“Visually, it’s always amazing when you have some sort of unifying concept or theme that’s present subtly throughout a community,” Dowdy says. “To have this neighborhood of mosaics … provides something that links people together.”

Dowdy says Payne has a “gift of connecting that artistic skill to engage residents in the community.”

“It’s been a powerful organizing force of nature to happen. I can’t speak for certain, but it has a real impact,” he says.

Ten years after Payne moved to Harwood, she says, her artistic vision is beginning to come into sharper focus.

“I see a reflection of my work here,” she says. “It’s really humbling, but I love city living.”

At a glance

2010 Census data

Population: 1,575

Families: 331

Total housing units: 749

Home sales via MRIS, courtesy of Live Baltimore

2016 sales and median price: 32, $122,950

2015 sales and median price: 26, $106,750

2014 sales and median price: 29, $80,000

Amenities

29th Street Community Center, 300 E 29th St.

Peabody Heights Brewery, 401 E. 30th St.

The BBQ, 2602 Greenmount Ave.

Harwood Park, 420 E 27th St.

26ers Park, E. 26th St.

Community garden, Greenmount and Whitridge avenues.

Nearby schools

Barclay Elementary School, 2900 Barclay St.

Cecil Elementary School, 2000 Cecil Ave.

Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, 1400 Orleans St.

Crime

In 2016, Harwood had 146 incidents of crime, according to Open Baltimore. There was one reported homicide and five reported shootings. Also that year, there were 11 reported auto thefts, 23 reported burglaries and 15 reported street robberies.

mpryce@baltsun.com

Follow me on Twitter @megpryce.

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