Washington Village/Pigtown

Special to BaltimoreSun.com

From a hilltop in Carroll Park dominated by the , one can see the panorama of downtown Baltimore to the north, a reborn Montgomery Ward warehouse directly to the south, and, in every direction, the rooftops of the thousands of rowhouses that make up the neighborhood alternately known as Pigtown and Washington Village.

Two cement lions guard the gates of the Georgian mansion built in 1760. They seem to be serving as sentries for a neighborhood that, until recent years, had need for vigilance.

Two cement lions guard the gates at Mount Clare Mansion.(Sun photo by Amy Davis)

But the neighborhood named after the pigs that once ran from the B&O Railroad yards to the nearby slaughterhouses (see Pamplona, with pork, in Pigtown) is undergoing a renaissance that, community leaders say, will match its rich, edgy history with a solid, healthy future.

Those charged with making Pigtown work again say a lot has changed since the 1970s, when the area began losing residents and scaring off visitors with blight and crime. Now, the area is more livable for the 5,000 people who still call it home and more enticing to those just passing through.

While remaining a neighborhood of, by and for its longtime working-class residents, $300,000 townhouses are being built and rehabilitated older homes have flooded the market. A plan in progress to spruce up the neighborhood's main drag is also coming to fruition.

Roughly bounded by Pratt Street to the north, Monroe Street to the west and south and the Russell Street corridor to the east, Pigtown has a lot to offer travelers who want to make the trip 10 blocks west from the Inner Harbor to see what city life is all about, the area's boosters say.

But for all that's new, Pigtown's main attraction is its distant past. The neighborhood that produced legendary harmonica player Larry Adler and former state senator Julian "Jack" Lapides emanated from Mount Clare Mansion and its surrounding Carroll Farm, which doubled early on as the largest "pig iron" furnace in the colonies. The home, farm and furnace were built by Charles Carroll, a driving force behind the Maryland Constitution and the cousin of a more celebrated Baltimore namesake who signed the Declaration of Independence. Nowadays, the Mount Clare Museum House is manna for lovers of 18th- and 19th-century furniture and decorative arts.

Surrounding the mansion is Charles Carroll's old estate, now called . The 117-acre expanse includes the city's biggest and most complete skate park, new baseball fields, an historic stable, several basketball courts and a popular nine-hole public golf course.

The Gwynns Falls Greenway, a 14-mile-long hiking and biking trail that links the western suburbs to the Inner Harbor and waterfront neighborhoods, also passes through Carroll Park.

In the early 1800s, the neighborhood began to branch out into surrounding marshes -- soon to be streets -- and homes were built to the farm's east and west. To the east, black slaves freed from Carroll's farm moved in. Pigtown may have contained the largest number of free black residents during the 1800s. Many of their descendants still live in rowhouses east of Washington Boulevard.

"Back in the '30s and '40s, there might have been no more than five families who took up all seven blocks," says William "Bus" Chambers, 77, a lifelong resident there. "It's still like family down here."

Antiques of all kinds dominate the large interior room of Housewerks.(Photo by Beckie Burkhardt, Special to baltimoresun.com)

Black workers were among those hired by B&O during the industry's infancy to pour iron and lay rails. The railroad's history, plus dozens of old locomotives and rail cars, is laid out at the , considered by many enthusiasts to be the most important rail museum in the country. The museum's roundhouse building was once a manufacturing and repair center for B&O and occupies the exact physical spot where the nation's railroad industry started in 1827. The roundhouse suffered an extensive roof collapse after a blizzard in 2003 but has since reopened.

Although Mount Clare and the B&O Museum are the two can't-miss cultural highlights, Pigtown offers several other edifices of note to architectural tourists. The former Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. Valve House has been restored and turned into an architectural salvage store called .

Other architectural oddities beckon: Idiosyncratic alley houses that date back to the 1850s can be found on the tiny blocks of Callender and Rhinehart streets. The city's first neon sign has been retrofitted and set up again above Fraternity Federal Savings and Loan (at 764 Washington Blvd.). And century-old brownstones have been rehabbed in the 500 block of Scott St.

Entertainment may be a bit harder to find -- boosters admit the area could use an infusion of nightlife and restaurants. However, locals point to one of the many neighborhood taverns as a good place to shoot pool and catch up on Pigtown lore.

The Washington Boulevard strip -- the neighborhood's main street -- does boast , billed as the oldest Irish pub in the United States (its family-owned precursor opened in 1847), a sentimental favorite that sits on the neighborhood's northern fringe.

Baltimore's first neon sign has been retrofitted and reinstalled above the Fraternity Federal Savings and Loan.(Photo by Beckie Burkhardt, Special to baltimoresun.com)

Although its rebound is still in progress, Pigtown has come a long way from its doldrums of 10 to 15 years ago.

Troubled by a declining business core along Washington Boulevard, the loss of industrial jobs, an increase in crime and an influx of drugs, the neighborhood witnessed a mass exodus beginning in the 1970s. In a 1991 article in American Demographics magazine, Pigtown was cited as a ragged symbol of everything that was wrong with American cities.

"Today the rap music is loud, bars fill by midmorning, and kids treat school as an option," the article read. A resident told the magazine: "Nobody works anymore. ... Everybody I know has left the city. I'd leave, too, if I had the money."

These days, people with money are moving in. Camden Crossing, a complex of new townhouses behind the B&O Railroad Museum, is slated for completion in 2005. These homes will draw a class of residents who are willing to shell out $250,000 to $350,000 to live there.

Already, the first batch of unfinished homes has sold out. "We're looking forward to welcoming our new neighbors," says Shawn McIntosh, executive director of the Washington Village/Pigtown Neighborhood Planning Council, a community group formed in 1995 with the help of federal Empowerment Zone money.

McIntosh points to statistics as a reason for the new arrivals: Crime was reduced by 25 percent between 2000 and 2005 and home values increased by 50 to 100 percent between 2002 and 2005. "There's a lot of evidence in favor of a turnaround," McIntosh says. "We think Pigtown is actually one of the up-and-coming neighborhoods in Baltimore."

The decorative entrance to the family-owned Patrick's of Pratt Street.(Photo by Beckie Burkhardt, Special to baltimoresun.com)

The future likely will also include a glossed-up Washington Boulevard, which currently features several vacant buildings, along with beauty salons, wig shops and carryouts. With help from the Washington Village/Pigtown Main Street project and the state and federal funding that back it up, storefronts are being renovated, new businesses opened, and a sculpture garden is planned. The old, hulking Montgomery Ward warehouse down the road has been retooled as the $100 million Montgomery Park, home to several small businesses and state agencies.

Understanding that its past is the key to its future, neighborhood leaders have applied to the federal government to get the area designated as an historic district. But that won't solve all of the neighborhood's problems.

Businesses -- particularly eating establishments and retail stores -- have yet to flock to the area. The Mount Clare Junction shopping center on Pratt Street does feature a grocery store, shoe store, car rental stop and an auto parts store, but much of the center is vacant.

To help create a sense of community as well as a buzz about the neighborhood, the Main Street project has sponsored the annual Pigtown Festival since 2002. The festival, held during the second weekend in September, features a re-enactment of the running of pigs.

But the challenge, McIntosh and others say, is not just re-creating bits of history to sell prospective neighbors on the Pigtown-yet-to-come. The trick is in integrating the new with the old. The annual median household income in Pigtown was only $22,000 in 2005 -- a sign that the bulk of the area's residents may not survive an up-with-Pigtown movement. As in most cases of gentrification, the neighborhood's entire fabric is being stretched.

"We have this amazing racial and economic diversity," says McIntosh. "We have to make sure we don't lose sight of how valuable that is."

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad