When she was a child, Patterson Park resident Ginny Dobry says, it wasn't unusual for families to sleep in the park on summer nights to escape their sweltering houses. In recent years, due to high crime levels, that activity might have been dangerous. But with a steady increase in efforts to rejuvenate the area and an overall optimism among its residents, similar activities may not be too far down the road.

Patterson Park and Butchers Hill are located in East Baltimore. The neighborhoods' central focus is the 155-acre Patterson Park, which is one of the oldest public parks in Baltimore and one of the oldest in the country.

The Patterson Park Pagoda was rehabilitated and opened in spring of 2002. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

The land for both Patterson Park and Butchers Hill (Baltimore's self-proclaimed "friendliest neighborhood") originally belonged to shipping merchant William Patterson, who is best known as the co-founder of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. In 1827, he donated six acres of a 200-acre property to the city for a "public walk," which almost immediately became known as "Patterson's Park." From 1873 to 1908, three more land purchases from Patterson's heirs gradually increased the size of the park to its present one. During this time, a number of structures were added. Fountains, a Gate House (now called the White House), a four-story Observatory (now called the Pagoda) and a Casino sprang up. The latter two were designed by Charles H. Latrobe, grandson of Benjamin Latrobe who designed the United States Capitol. A Music Pavilion was added in 1924.

Patterson also purchased the property directly west of the park, which was known as Kemp's Addition, at a public auction in 1792. By the early 19th century, the area had become known as Butchers Hill due to the fact that local butchers made up the bulk of the neighborhood's businesses. From the 1850s to around 1915, it was a fashionable place to live with many German merchants and Jewish professionals among its residents.

Ed Rutkowski, who has lived in the Patterson Park neighborhood for more than a decade and heads the Patterson Park Community Development Corporation, estimates that the area's current demographic makeup is approximately 70 percent white, 25 percent black and 5 percent Hispanic. Ginny Dobry, who is "over 60" and has lived in the neighborhood all her life, adds that there are also a number of recent immigrants from places such as Africa and the former Soviet Union. The age range also varies widely -- from long-term residents like Dobry to young professionals and families.

Rowhouses in Butcher's Hill tend to be a little bigger than those found in nearby Canton and Fells Point. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

One interesting aspect of Butchers Hill is the large number of artists who live in the neighborhood. These include sculptor William Duffy, painter Susan Lowe, wildlife photographer Tony Sweet and photo-illustrator Martha Simons. There are also many medical professionals who work at nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital. Incidentally, Duffy feels the label of "Baltimore's friendliest neighborhood" is well deserved. "[It's] a tight community," he says. "People watch out for each other."

Both Patterson Park and Butchers Hill residents note that one attractive thing about their neighborhoods is the affordability of the houses (many of which are rowhouses). Sue Noonan, who has lived in Butchers Hill for 14 years and is president of the Butchers Hill Association, says a small fixer-upper can be found for as little as $20,000. The Patterson Park Community Development Corporation helps maintain the affordability by buying vacant houses and offering them for sale or rent at reasonable prices. Butchers Hill started its own CDC in 2001. Tom Spiewak, who is rehabbing a CDC house, says, "I got the best of both worlds here. I'm in the city [and] I have a beautiful park across the street."

Beginning in the 1950s, both Butchers Hill and Patterson Park suffered a decline. A number of Butchers Hill homes that had been converted to Section 8 housing or split up into apartments deteriorated, and drugs and prostitution became prevalent. In the park, the Pagoda became so decayed that it was closed from 1951 to 1964, and there was even talk of demolishing it. During the 1970s, three incidents of arson destroyed or severely damaged the Music Pavilion, the Casino and the bathhouses. Nancy Supik, president of the Friends of Patterson Park, says matters weren't helped by an influx of unscrupulous real estate agents who bought houses in poor condition for very low prices, did minimal repairs, then sold them at inflated prices.

One group that inadvertently helped spark interest in revitalizing the neighborhood was Fluid Movement, a performance art group whose unconventional productions in the park (co-sponsored by the PPCDC and the Friends of Patterson Park) included a water ballet based on the life of Cleopatra and a roller-skating adaptation of "Frankenstein." The media coverage these productions received ("Cleopatra," for example, was featured on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition) led to sold-out performances and brought many people into the neighborhood who might not ordinarily have gone there. In addition, a number of people who perform with the group have chosen to buy or rent houses there.

The Casino is one of the older buildings in Patterson Park. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Visitors to the park can find plenty to do. There's a pool, ice skating rink, tennis courts, basketball courts, playgrounds and playing fields for baseball and soccer. In addition, the Virginia Baker Recreation Center, built on the site of the Music Pavilion, offers after-school care and classes in aerobics, basketball and karate. Many special events are also scheduled during the year, including the Bike Jam, which features a community bike parade and Pro/Am bike racing, and the annual Kinetic Sculpture Race.

The Pagoda reopened to the public after a major renovation in April 2002, and renovations began on the Lombard Street entrance and the Boat Lake. The number of special events also increased to include an outdoor production of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" by the Mobtown Players, the annual Baltimore Blues Festival, and Relay for Life, an overnight campout and walkathon for cancer research.

While Butchers Hill's CDC is relatively new, it has had a strong neighborhood association for many years. The BHA sponsors a number of annual events, such as a House Tour in the fall and a holiday potluck dinner in December. Residents can get involved in one of the BHA's many committees or attend more informal events, such as get-togethers for neighborhood artists and a book discussion group.

Simon's Pub is one of the few restaurants in Butcher's Hill. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Despite their development efforts and the artsy or ethnic residents, both Patterson Park and Butchers Hill are lacking in neighborhood gathering places and nightlife, with the exception of Patterson Perk, DiPasquale's Italian Marketplace and Simon's Pub, which regularly presents art shows of work by residents. The nearby Morning Edition Cafe is also a cheerful, homey place to get some good comfort food.

While Patterson Park and Butchers Hill still have some problems, most of the residents agree that these are minor compared to those of the past. "I think we're up and coming," says Dobry. "We're very optimistic."

Supik agrees: "We're looking at a lot of hope over here." And Duffy thinks the recent influx of money into the neighborhood in the form of grants from the Maryland Historical Trust, the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks and others -- to help with the park's renovation -- is an especially good sign. "East Baltimore is going to become the center, the mecca of things that are going on in Baltimore."