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Lifestyle

Charles Village

Charles Village sits at the crossroads of Baltimore old and new. While historic painted lady rowhouses are carefully maintained and repainted in traditional Victorian style, a multi-million dollar construction project proposes to bring in new businesses and apartments. The city's oldest architecture cozies up beside new innovations in music and performance.

This study in contradictions builds Charles Village's unique character. Stretching from Howard Street east to Greenmount and University Parkway south to North Avenue, Charles Village encompasses academia, history, culture and civic pride into an oasis in busy Baltimore.

Citizens of Charles Village are typically atypical, as evidenced by the abstract local arts scene and diverse street and neighborhood festivals. Denizens range from Johns Hopkins college students in the heart of Charles Village to young families up and down Abell Avenue to townies and community activists anywhere in between.

From the Charles Village festival and Halloween fair to the Abell Street Festival and Johns Hopkins Spring Fair, Charles Villagers are never without a reason to celebrate and show off their civic pride. With so much art, history and culture, there is plenty to be proud of.

The painted ladies are the famous colorful rowhouses that line Charles Village streets.(Photo by Kim Phelan, Special to baltimoresun.com)

Charles Village was initially a post-Civil War, get-rich-quick scheme that did not quite pan out, as get-rich-quick schemes are wont to do. A group of investors aimed to make the area then known as Peabody Heights into a posh neighborhood notable for its proximity to the estates there -- the Homewood House, Wyman Villa and Evergreen House among them. Initial developers met with little success, but when the neighborhood finally did begin to grow some quarter of a century later, it could not be stopped. Peabody Heights quickly blossomed into a neighborhood replete with the ornate rowhouses that still line its streets today. The painted ladies, as they are called due to their colorful facades, are still maintained to the highest degree, each more vivid than the last.

When Johns Hopkins University moved its campus to the locale in 1915, the neighborhood changed yet again, breeding a number of apartment buildings and eventually a series of high-rises. In a flourish of community spirit and renewed development in the 1960s, Peabody Heights was renamed Charles Village after the street running through the center of Baltimore City.

Even now, Charles Village is changing dramatically. Currently in mid-facelift, the neighborhood cannot wait to show off its makeover after the completion of the impressive and aptly named Charles Village Project. Scheduled to be completed by 2008, the project will bring new apartments, increased commercial space, a parking garage, more student housing and a new Barnes and Noble-owned university bookstore, as well as a renovation of St. Paul and 33rd streets. For the time being, Charles Village residents have become acclimated to their interim state dominated by beeps and bulldozers.

At the heart of Charles Village, Johns Hopkins University is a major local institution. Theater flourishes in the university's four major performing arts spaces and a variety of other small venues, with most open to the public for only a few dollars. Monthly screenings of recently released movies as well as Snark Sneak Previews at one of the state's largest movie screens at Hopkins' Shriver Hall keep Charles Villagers busy on weekends. Unlike many neighborhoods with sizeable universities, there seems to be little strain in the town-gown relationship in Charles Village, though the Hop Cops, as security officers are affectionately called, are kept on their toes busting off-campus students for noise violations. For the most part, Charles Village welcomes the fresh faces with open arms every September and celebrates their athletic victories proudly through the winter and spring with signs and banners proclaiming their allegiance to the Blue Jays.

Parking in Charles Village, like this street near Johns Hopkins, can be difficult.(Photo by Kim Phelan, Special to baltimoresun.com)

Getting to Charles Village is trouble-free thanks to a number of city bus routes that run through the neighborhood. Driving to the locale is a simple trip up Charles Street from downtown. But parking is another story. Much of the area parking has time or permit limitations or is metered, and the situation is only exacerbated by the construction. A shortage of affordable parking lots does not help, but the situation promises to improve as the construction project is completed.

Parking is not the only caveat to be heeded when visiting Charles Village. Though generally an idyllic neighborhood, Charles Village is not without crime. Car break-ins are not entirely uncommon and those who prowl Charles Village at night should be mindful of muggers.

Despite this, Charles Village is well worth the visit. Nestled in a metropolis, it maintains the feel of a small town with its active and enthusiastic population but has all of the activity and culture of a bustling city.

Places to go, people to see

On the cutting edge of art, music and higher learning, Charles Village can take years to explore. Alternatively classical and contemporary, Charles Village's arts scene cannot be beat.

The Baltimore Museum of Art is home to works by everyone from Matisse to Andy Warhol. With entire wings devoted to post-World War II art and masters from Cezanne to Picasso, the permanent collection at the BMA rivals any major art museum, as does its impressive array of pre-Columbian art and artifacts. Also hidden behind the museum's lion-guarded façade is the modern sculpture garden, well worth a stroll and open free to the public during normal museum hours. The BMA's gift shop offers off-beat wares that match the museum's just-outside-of-mainstream atmosphere.

Also of note at the BMA is its performance space, The Meyerhoff Auditorium. Hosting everything from dance workshops to unique theater pieces, performing art thrives at the BMA and is a local weekend highlight.

Charles Village's art scene is not all so posh. The neighborhood is also home to a unique blend of eclectic local haunts. Not to be missed among these is Video Americain, the underground bookstore that stocks films old and new, domestic and foreign, good and awful. Big names and blockbusters line the front room's shelves in both video and DVD while rooms to the left and right are dedicated to foreign films, classics, great directors and cult classics.

The Homewood House is the only surviving relic of the time before Charles Village knew Johns Hopkins or painted ladies. Built by Charles Carroll, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence (and namesake of Carroll County), in 1801, the Homewood House is a fully furnished home built on what was once a 130-acre farm when the Baltimore city center was an astonishing two miles away. In addition to a spot on the National Register of Historic Landmarks, the museum also boasts an ever-changing calendar of special events and lectures as well as regular classical music concerts by performers from the Peabody Institute throughout the spring and summer.

While not a cultural apex, Record & Tape Traders has some of the most fun shopping in Charles Village. The off-beat music store offers a wide array of new and used CDs, cassettes and vinyl, plus enough feather boas, pins and wonky sunglasses to bring out the glam rocker in even the most conservative shopper.

Good eats

Donna's is one of the familiar franchises located in Charles Village.(Photo by Kim Phelan, Special to baltimoresun.com)

Thanks to the many establishments that cater to the student budget, Charles Village offers several delectable and affordable options. For those who prefer the familiar, the neighborhood offers a slew of franchises -- Ruby Tuesday's, Donna's, Subway, and the like -- but Charles Village's unique character also shines through in its many one-of-a-kind venues.

On weekends, Sam's Bagels and Pete's Grille in Waverly duke it out for supremacy with the brunch crowd. Sam's remains popular for its wide array of bagel and cream cheese combinations (and a mean bagel sandwich), but Pete's has recently won national fame as Olympic superstar Michael Phelps' favorite hang-out. Stools at the counter-only eatery are difficult to come by but well worth the wait, as proven by the patrons willing to wait outside the door for hotcakes and grits.

Eddie's takes the cake for great fare and local allegiance with sandwich titles reflecting its Hopkins' loyalties (the Smokin' Jay) and civic pride (the Charles Villager). Though Eddie's is a local landmark and its outdoor tables provide not only a venue for diners but also a stomping ground for locals, it has recently been given a run for its money by the new (less expensive) Giant built in nearby Waverly. For classic bar fare, PJ's Pub cannot be beat, particularly on Wednesdays when burgers are half-price. Charles Village Pub is also a happenin' night spot, but more for its bar than its dinner menu. The crowd at the dimly lit CVP is one of the few amalgamations of residents and college students in the neighborhood, making it a local institution. One World Café offers affordable vegetarian (and even a few vegan) options just across the street from the Hopkins stadium and boasts an excellent breakfast menu.

Tamber's Nifty Fifties combines the diner of yesteryear with modern Indian dishes.(Photo by Kim Phelan, Special to baltimoresun.com)

For the worldlier diner, Charles Village has a surprising exotic side. While Tamber's Nifty Fifties Diner's décor would suggest the all-American malt shop from yesteryear, its menu offers a plethora of moderately priced Indian dishes. The ethnic dishes are delicious, but burgers and shakes are also a specialty. On the outskirts of Charles Village, the simply titled Thai Restaurant is a perennial Best of Baltimore winner. Its modest storefront does not betray the unique décor or high-quality food that lies within and keeps the eatery a hidden treasure. Niwana, the nearly windowless basement restaurant, boasts an impressive menu of Japanese and Korean dishes with the world's greatest fried ice cream for dessert.

For a pretty penny, Gertrude's offers a classic menu with a twist and a beautiful view of the BMA's outdoor sculpture garden. Not one to forget from whence she has come, good old Gertrude was sure to include a variety of crab-themed specialties for the true Marylander, including noteworthy crab cakes. The members-only Hopkins Club has a menu of American standards and a rigid dress code in the university's President's Garden.

For a grand finale, there is Gaga's Ice Cream for ice cream, frozen yogurt, milkshakes or smoothies. For the more refined palate, the Dessert Café makes up for what it lacks in ambience with an impressive menu of pastries, cakes, coffees, teas and, most importantly, gelato.

The matchless nature that defines Charles Village is unmistakable. Its eclectic and often bohemian feel make it a must-see for any Baltimore visitor. Charles Village offers a plethora of options for every preference and palate. The historic neighborhood remains a flashback to Baltimore of old while still keeping pace with the ever-changing city. Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun

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