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Blue-collar Locust Point copes with high-end growth

A recent influx of new residents and a traditional industrial character make up the Baltimore neighborhood of Locust Point. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun video)

Brenda McHale still has half of the pair of roller skates she shared with her best friend, Karen Smith, when they were girls growing up in Locust Point in the 1960s.

Brenda (then Brenda Schautz) placed her foot in the left skate, and Karen, in the right. Down Reynolds Street they skated, holding hands. It was an unorthodox way to proceed, but they made their way steadily forward.

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Similarly, Brenda, her husband and their neighbors are trying to move Locust Point ahead by linking the future — however wobbly — with the past.

The B&O Railroad yard and piers in Locust Point in the early 1940s: Many newly arrived immigrants worked at area industries and built homes nearby.
The B&O Railroad yard and piers in Locust Point in the early 1940s: Many newly arrived immigrants worked at area industries and built homes nearby. (Aubrey Bodine / Baltimore Sun 1941)

"It was like Mayberry," Brenda McHale says. "Everyone knew everyone. We don't ever want to lose that small-town feeling."

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Brenda and her husband, former state Del. Brian McHale, have watched their neighborhood metamorphose from a modest, blue-collar area to one of the most upscale ZIP codes in Baltimore.

Locust Point was settled in the 19th and early 20th centuries by the German, Polish, Irish and Italian immigrants who docked at the port next to Fort McHenry. Many got jobs in the neighborhood, which included the Bethlehem Steel and Domino Sugar factories, and then built homes nearby.

In the 1960s, Brian McHale shared a rowhouse on Hubbard Street with eight family members spread over three generations. After school, he'd bound down the steps in search of a game of stickball or curb ball.

"It was a much more relaxed time," he says.

"Kids could run wild. If you asked parents where their children were, they'd say 'out playing somewhere.' But my father expected us to be at the supper table by 6 sharp. When I was late, he'd say: 'Didn't you hear the church bell, boy?'"

The view from the bridge on Fort Avenue in Locust Point where Silo Point, the train tracks and the Harbor can be seen. The traditional industrial character of the neighborhood is combining with the recent influx of residents.
The view from the bridge on Fort Avenue in Locust Point where Silo Point, the train tracks and the Harbor can be seen. The traditional industrial character of the neighborhood is combining with the recent influx of residents. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

The transition to a neighborhood where traffic is so heavy that kids would never dream of playing in the streets has been met with mixed emotions.

"Many residents recognize that growth is good for the city, and we enjoy the amenities that growth brings," says Greg Sileo, president of the Locust Point Civic Association. "But we want to protect the neighborhood from the impact of too-rapid development."

The population of Locust Point (including the nearby industrial area) swelled by 38.6 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. census, when 2,780 people lived on the peninsula. More condominiums and townhouses have been built in the past six years — and additional residences are in development.

A turning point occurred in 2002, when Under Armour opened its showcase campus on the site of a former soap factory. Suddenly, developers could see the neighborhood's potential.

The building boom hasn't stopped since. But because it is a peninsula, locations for new development are limited. Meanwhile, as the population has mushroomed, the neighborhood's original inhabitants, its industries, have continued going about their business as they have for decades.

That creates issues when, for instance, owners of high-end residences encounter train whistles in the middle of the night.

"The city and developers have to understand that if they're going to build homes on top of active industrial sites, they should expect there to be conflict," says Brian McHale, who has worked as a longshoreman for 43 years.

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Sileo says the building projects that have been the most successful sought input from residents before blueprints were finalized.

So-called planned unit development, in which the community and developer must agree on major issues before the project can break ground, is one model that has worked well, he says. But other methods can achieve the same results.

Some developers resist, because negotiating with the community can be expensive, time-consuming and frustrating. But McHale and Sileo are convinced that compromises early on avoid problems down the road.

"We believe that it's always in the developer's best interests to work with the community to make sure that the things that people love about the neighborhood are maintained," Sileo says.

For his part, Brian McHale stops by local pubs occasionally to meet his new neighbors, and he's been impressed with what he's found. The newcomers include architects and designers and engineers with skills that Locust Point can use.

"Good neighbors are good neighbors," McHale says, "regardless of how long they've lived here."

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