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A microscopic downtown locale, Otterbein is the kind of place one may easily overlook. Yet this cluster of tidy rowhouses and apartments boasts a rich history dating back to the mid-19th century. Moreover, the middle- to upper-class Otterbein neighborhood is touted as one of the true modern-day success stories in Baltimore. A key component of the city's ongoing downtown renaissance, it is recognized nationwide as one of the most successful examples of the urban homesteading phenomenon.

Bounded by Conway and Henrietta, Charles and Sharp streets, Otterbein constitutes a small rectangle in the heart of the action. It's just across the street from Oriole Park at Camden Yards and Ravens Stadium, in easy walking distance of downtown and the Inner Harbor.

Lee Street is one of the more scenic streets in Otterbein. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

In the early 20th century Otterbein was home to a thriving immigrant community, with newly arrived Italians and Greeks, Germans and Poles, all rubbing elbows and sharing close quarters. Yet the middle years of the 20th century saw the neighborhood in steep decline. By 1975, Otterbein needed a hero, and it found one in then-mayor William Donald Schaefer, whose administration set out to sponsor the rehabilitation of some 110 dwellings. Amidst strong public support for the effort, a lottery was held and neighborhood homes were sold to the winners at $1 apiece. Soon Otterbein found itself on the rebound.

Today Otterbein is a hot downtown neighborhood, with developers eager to ride the coattails of its success. Immediately adjacent to Otterbein, for example, the facades in the 100-townhouse Harbor Walk community were designed to blend harmoniously with Otterbein's Federal-period rowhouses.

Despite its central location, Otterbein nonetheless maintains an air of seclusion, a kind of delightful calm. Even on game days, Otterbein's streets preserve their tranquil air, thanks to a city policy of strict parking enforcement along the neighborhood's short and narrow streets.

Perhaps it makes sense that tranquility should reign in Otterbein, a neighborhood whose most prominent cultural and architectural landmark is a church.

Old Otterbein United Methodist Church is the oldest church edifice still standing in the city of Baltimore. Its story dates back to 1771, when the German Evangelical Reformed Church put up a temporary chapelon the site. A few years later, the neighborhood namesake took the pulpit. A German missionary who had come to America to preach to German colonists in Pennsylvania, Philip William Otterbein spent 39 years as spiritual leader of the church that now bears his name.

The Old Otterbein United Methodist Church is the oldest church edifice still standing in the city of Baltimore. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

This Rev. Otterbein must have been quite a man. He had a close relationship with Francis Asbury, the missionary whose energies helped grow the Methodist movement from a 1,200-strong sect in the United States to a denomination encompassing some 214,000 worshippers. No slouch himself, Asbury described Otterbein as "towering majestic above his fellows in learning, wisdom and grace, yet seeking to be known only of God and the people of God." In fact, Otterbein's Baltimore church became the cradle of the fledgling denomination.

The present church structure was built in 1785, and the 1811 parsonage stands nearby. The interior has been remodeled at various times over the years, but the sanctuary remains the oldest in continuous use in Baltimore. In fact, the sanctuary itself is tied up tightly with the history of the city: It was built of ballast bricks discarded by ships in the harbor nearby, and its boards were fixed with handmade nails.

The neighborhood boasts another significant institution, equally influential though perhaps less readily noticed.

There's a brick building on Sharp Street where the lawn is always neat and an armed guard stands watch. It is one of 12 Federal Reserve Banks located around the nation: These are the government banks that supply cash and coin to ordinary, commercial banks. Thus, that nondescript brick building is home to at least a few million bucks on any given day -- which no doubt adds a certain cachet to the neighborhood. "Rich neighbors," one might quip.

Churches and banks notwithstanding, Otterbein is best known as a residential neighborhood. The streets are tidy, the traditional Baltimore rowhouses nicely kept up.

It took a lot for Otterbein to get this way. Even after the dollar houses were sold and the homesteaders set to work restoring these mid-1880 rowhouses, the city continued to lend support to the neighborhood's revitalization effort. Traffic patterns have been rerouted to keep the neighborhood quiet, and city officials have been strict about enforcing the no-dumping laws meant to keep neighborhood parks presentable.

Even the lighting in Otterbein has won praise from urban planners. Charming lampposts, installed with pedestrians in mind, cast a warm evening glow along the sidewalks.

As with any major urban undertaking, the Otterbein turnaround has not been without its critics. Take for instance U.S. Congressman Elijah E. Cummings, who, in 2002, wrote in the Baltimore Afro American Newspaper about "the hard-working people of color to whom I delivered the Afro American newspaper during my youth." Urban renewal in Otterbein "displaced these original South Baltimore residents -- with little compensation and almost without a trace that they had ever lived there," he wrote.

Game days at nearby Ravens Stadium sometimes disrupt the peace and quiet of Otterbein. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Still, the renewed and restored Otterbein has been widely heralded as a keystone in the overall structure of Baltimore's revitalization. For the Inner Harbor to succeed, at least in its early days, someone needed to live nearby. The homesteaders of Otterbein brought pedestrian traffic to the harbor area, and they came with cash to spend. Today the neighborhood's upscale residents still form a vital component of the economic scene downtown.

And why wouldn't they, with so many cultural and culinary diversions so close at hand?

The ever-expanding Inner Harbor continues to attract national-name restaurants and entertainment venues. Little Italy is just a few blocks past there. Cool bars cluster around the stadiums. The city's institutions of high culture, all the museums and theaters and galleries, are likewise within easy reach.

Needless to say, Otterbein does not come cheap. Housing costs are what one might expect in an upscale urban neighborhood. Yet, willing buyers have been ready to sign on, as the neighborhood becomes ever more tightly integrated into the overall revitalization of downtown Baltimore.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun