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City dell is a tiny refuge off I-83

Special to The Sun

The thousands of motorists who daily drive through the intersection of Northern Parkway and Falls Road don't realize they've passed one of the most unusual neighborhoods in the city.

That's because Sabina-Mattfeldt is hard to recognize. Most of it is in a valley, and only the roofs of its houses are visible to drivers whizzing by.

"When I tell people where I live, they always say there's no street there," Juanita Rockwell said with a laugh.

But there is. In fact, there're two streets -- and only two streets -- Sabina and Mattfeldt avenues. The latter starts just east of the ramp to the Jones Falls Expressway and angles up to Falls Road. Sabina is a short dead-end street off Mattfeldt.

The secluded community of about 30 homes has its own green space smack in the middle of North Baltimore. People always wish they could live in a village-like setting in the city, but the residents of Sabina-Mattfeldt actually do.

Standing in the middle of the neighborhood, you have no sense of the constant stream of traffic above. You could almost be in a mill town in New England.

But in a mill town, you can't walk to Fresh Fields supermarket at the Mount Washington Mill or the stores at Cross Keys.

Starbucks nearby

"It's great to be able to walk to Starbucks," said Rockwell, a seven-year resident and director of Towson University's graduate theater program.

Everything's very easy to get to from Sabina-Mattfeldt. Motorists can jump on the nearby Jones Falls Expressway and be downtown in the blink of an eye or drive up Northern Parkway to Eddie's supermarket in Roland Park in less than five minutes.

Steve Herbenar, who has been a resident for more than 50 years, has seen Sabina-Mattfeldt change from a neighborhood of factory workers into one that's home to artists, musicians and fine-arts academics such as Rockwell.

"Physically, it was much like it is now when I moved here," said Herbenar, who's one of about six homeowners with 50 or more years as residents. "But a lot of young couples with kids live here now."

Almost all the houses are plain, two-story, wood-frame houses built in the late 19th century for workers employed by the mills that once bordered the Jones Falls. Many still have their round-top attic windows and front porches with the original turned posts.

Over time, most of the houses have been completely rehabbed, according to Diane Bieretz, president of the Sabina-Mattfeldt Community Association, who's also seen the community change from blue collar to professional in her 14 years there.

One-bathroom houses

Rockwell bought hers renovated with three bedrooms and 2 1/2 baths. Many of the homes have four bedrooms and one bathroom.

"Besides being very convenient to schools and stores, the houses are a good value," Bieretz said. A house hunter has to be quite patient though: only one home has sold in the last year -- for $161,500 -- and it took only 24 days to sell. No houses in Sabina-Mattfeldt are on the market now.

Several Mattfeldt Avenue homes that backed up to the Jones Falls were flooded in 1973 during Hurricane Agnes. The city bought the houses and razed them, leaving empty lots that became the neighborhood's two open areas. "We planted the trees and turned it into our own park," Herbenar said.

"You hear about these new communities that are built around green spaces; we already have one," said Bieretz, who explained it is home to herons, kingfishers and foxes as well as the site of the neighborhood's first badminton tournament last year.

There's a piece of history directly across from their homemade park.

Farther north, on the other side of the Jones Falls, is the former home field of the Mount Washington Athletic Club's famous lacrosse team. It is now owned by the Bryn Mawr School.

In 1865, Charles Mattfeldt, who owned a store in Mount Washington, bought a parcel of land along Belvedere Avenue, which is now Northern Parkway.

From 1886 to the mid-1890s, he and his son built the wood-frame houses that were rented to the men and women who worked in the mills along the Jones Falls, especially those of the Woodberry Manufacturing Co., which was once the nation's largest maker of cotton canvas.

Everyone knows each other

One by one, the mills went out of business, but starting in the 1980s, the buildings were recycled into new uses such as the complex where Fresh Fields is now located, giving North Baltimoreans new shopping venues without having to go into the county.

Because of Sabina-Mattfeldt's intimate size, everyone knows each other's name, Bieretz said. "It's friendly, but not overly friendly," said Rockwell. "There's several groups of neighbors who get together on a regular basis."

Sabina-Mattfeldt is proof that there are still interesting communities to be discovered in the city. But some residents hope the area will remain hidden.

"This neighborhood's a little gem for us," said Rockwell. "I'm kind of hesitant to tell anyone about it.

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