Opposites attract, and they've come to Towson to acquaint themselves. The city, which springs from Baltimore's northern boundary, is a study in contrasts. Mansions and mega-malls. Copses and concrete. Mainstream and alternative. Unassuming and urbane.
On the surface, Towson is a typical suburb with strip malls, traffic-clogged roads, chain dining and baby joggers. But flip it over, and you'll find a community infused with the energy of 16,000 college students, their culture and customs, and the overflow from a city just a few miles down the road.
Towson's personalities converge at the intersection of Dulaney Valley, York and Joppa roads. Parents push strollers alongside heavily pierced students, and patrons shop for furs and snowboarding gear on the same block.
This intersection wasn't always this motley. Back in 1752, brothers Thomas and William Towson established their farm just north of there and spawned a thriving farm community. In 1786, Thomas' son Ezekiel built the Towson Hotel at the crossroads, lending respite to local farmers and merchants who traveled through "Towsontown" en route to the markets and ports of Baltimore.
In the late 1700s, wealthy city dwellers sought relief from Baltimore's oppressive summer heat and built "cottages" there. These homes were hardly bungalows -- they were rambling Victorians, Georgian mansions and brick Colonials that breathed elegance into the countryside.
Halls of justice: The Baltimore County Courthouse was built between 1854 and 1856. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)
While most of these buildings have been razed to accommodate residential and commercial growth, a few still stand or live on in the communities named for them, such as Anneslie and Stoneleigh.
Perhaps the most famous and elegant of all is , now a national historic site. Built between 1783 and 1790 by iron magnate Charles Ridgely, the mansion offers a glimpse of life in prosperous post-Revolutionary America. Ridgely earned his fortune making weapons for the patriot troops, and six generations of descendants added their own personal touches to the mansion. The estate, which expanded to 25,000 acres at its peak, is open to the public for tours.
Towson lost its country label forever in 1854, when it was named the seat of Baltimore County. A bona fide city sprouted from the original crossroads. Many of the early municipal buildings downtown -- such as the Courthouse (built with stone donated by the Ridgely family) and the post office -- still exist and provide stark contrast to the modern office buildings that tower around them. The Towson jail, built in 1854, was the site of public hangings and even an occasional lynching. The building is still occupied by some of the county's most notorious residents.
More than 250 years after Ezekiel built his hotel, the intersection remains the nexus of the community. But instead of a traveler's rest, visitors, residents and college students go there to dine, shop and be entertained. With thousands of academics and students infiltrating the area from points around the country and across the globe, downtown Towson sustains the vibrant energy and cultural liberalism of cities 10 times its size.
Live, from Towson
Where the Towson Hotel once stood is a meeting place of a different kind -- the , a billiard parlor-turned-concert hall. The venue has hosted performers of local and national acclaim, including Macy Gray, Luscious Jackson, Ziggy Marley, Cowboy Junkies, Better than Ezra, They Might be Giants and George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars. The adjacent Rec Room houses the pool tables on which the venue was originally founded.
The Rec is not the only place to down a cold brew. There are several saloons in the neighborhood that, when taken collectively, comprise a scaled-down pub crawl. You can forget peace and quite at these places -- the local college students swarm them for late-night beer-guzzling, ogling and flirting.
Just across the vehicle-choked rotary is , a favorite of Towson University students. The bar has a DJ on Friday and Saturday nights, but the best time to visit might be on Wednesdays, when you can buy three draft beers for $3. You'll spend a tad more on Thursdays, when drafts are $1.25.
Proceed with caution: The roundabout at York, Dulaney Valley, Joppa and Allegheny roads has confused its share of motorists. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)
If you're visiting next door, get there early and nosh on the tasty, inexpensive sandwiches, burgers, wings and other pub grub before the beer quaffers descend in full force. The Crease is well-known for its popular Crease burger, topped with blue cheese and mushroom gravy.
Turn west off of York Road onto the comparatively quiet Chesapeake Avenue and end the night at the . CVP caters to the Towson University and Goucher College students the way its city location caters to the Johns Hopkins University crowd. It also houses a rarity in Towson: outdoor patio seating.
The good news is that Souris', The Crease and CVP are all open daily until 2 a.m. The bad news -- depending on how much you want to relive your youth, of course -- is that you'll suffocate under throngs of college students on the weekend.
If you're looking for nighttime activities that don't involve alcohol, visit for a poetry reading, acoustic performance or art exhibit. Moviegoers can check out the newest blockbusters at .
Learning fun: Tawanda Thompson, 9, uses one of the computers in the children's section of the Towson Library. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)
If you prefer borrowing books to buying them, visit the on York Road. This mammoth, contemporary building contains more than 220,000 volumes and looks more like a sporting arena than a library with its red electronic sign and hulking concrete exterior. For a few cents an hour, you can park in the adjacent lot. There is a flat rate of $1.50 per day on weekends.
If it's live performances you're looking for, they can be found on the campus (north on Dulaney Valley Road): both the and the feature a regular slate of plays, musicals, concerts and other performances. Pick up a copy of the "Towson Times" -- the weekly newspaper -- for a listing of current events.
It's in the bag
Spendthrifts and bargain shoppers alike will find plenty to do in Towson. Whether you're looking for a new pair of "gently-worn" jeans or a mink coat, a stogie or rolling papers, you'll find it here.
A pleasant mix awaits conventional shoppers at the area's two major retail hubs: Towson Commons at York Road and Pennsylvania Avenue, and Towson Circle at York and Joppa roads. At the former, the main attractions are the AMC movie theaters and the Italian restaurant . Towson Circle is newer and houses retailers like , Country Curtains and , the gourmet/organic grocery store with a cult-like following.
You'll find a more diverse, edgy collection of wares at the many specialty shops scattered throughout the area. Aristocrats and students browse together on Allegheny Avenue. Venerable smokers shop at , while ladies and gentlemen shop for ermines and minks next door at Kent Fisher Furs. and other shops sell antiques, jewelry, tapestries and dolls. The grunge crowd goes to for their snowboarding gear and apparel.
Hit the rapids: Kayaks are just one example of the many pieces of equipment you can get at Sunny's. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)
A block over on Chesapeake, immerse yourself in hippiedom at . Stock up on candles, incense, smoking pipes, tie-dyes, Jerry Garcia memorabilia and every flower child's necessity -- Grateful Dead teddy bears. Stumble into for all of your outdoor gear and a nice variety of earth-toned T-shirts, turtlenecks and overalls.
Back on York Road, bargain hunters can buy Jones New York, DKNY and Ralph Lauren items for a fraction of the price at Once and Again, a second-hand store, or go retro at . Feel like slipping into something a little more comfortable? Head to for sexy and slinky clothes and accessories. If you want to know if you'll be lucky in love before splurging on the duds, get a reading from Mrs. Page, psychic advisor, above Angel's Grotto bar. Dungeons & Dragons followers will want to visit , and outdoor enthusiasts with money to spare will jump for glee when they see the enormous . The nearby Joshua Tree sells hemp clothing and other items for the eco-conscious crowd.
There is more suburban-style shopping to be had near the center of town. North on Dulaney Valley Road you'll find : with almost one million square feet of shopping space it's one of the largest malls in Maryland. Sprawled across four levels are the most ubiquitous names in retail: Crate & Barrel, Eddie Bauer, Express, Brookstone, Nordstrom, The Gap -- you get the idea. In all, there are more than 150 stores and more than 20 eating establishments.
Across from Towson Town Center is , a strip mall-style panacea for your shopaholic urges. Save dough on used CDs at ; decorate your digs at ; or satisfy your carnivorous cravings at the Omaha Steaks retail outlet.
Bargain shoppers will swoon at just a few miles from Towson Town Center at 1238 Putty Hill Ave. -- where they'll find favorite discount chain stores like Marshalls, TJ Maxx, and Target. This shopping center has been around for a while, but popular chains like Bed Bath & Beyond, Toys R Us, Blockbuster Video, Einstein Bagels, and The Sports Authority keep the parking lot bustling.
There are plenty of eateries in Towson to please every palate and pocketbook. is a cheerful, sunny place serving cheap tacos, burritos, enchiladas and other Mexican fare. Take your tray to the bright dining area and watch the human parade stroll by. If it's before noon and you find yourself on Chesapeake, head to , a fashionable espresso bar, or , a quaint nook serving breakfast and lunch.
Italian food lovers have three choices in the area. On Allegheny Avenue, is an elegant bistro with a neighborhood feel. This pleasant, spacious restaurant serves delicious, expensive Italian fare -- from formal entrees to simple pastas. Paolo's in Towson Commons serves Italian with a Californian flair -- fresh Italian food supplemented with innovative pizzas, salads and pastas. on Allegheny Avenue is probably the least expensive of the three, serving Italian standards like pasta, veal and salads.
Pennsylvania Avenue seems to be the place for pun-flavored eateries: check out and restaurant and bar.
On York Road, you'll find even more places to refuel. There's a , one of a handful of national chains in the neighborhood. The is the best place in town for Asian cuisine, serving Chinese, Korean and Japanese. Visit for the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, when you can stuff yourself for just $8. The dinner buffet is even more extensive for $16.
Take a dip at the on York Road, where you'll dunk appetizers in gooey cheese and cook chunks of meat in bubbling hot oil in your own personal fondue pot. The best part about a meal at the Melting Pot is dessert: fresh fruit, marshmallows and cheesecake dipped in hot milk chocolate or one of six other cavity-inducing concoctions.
No matter where you eat, you must follow your meal with a cone from on Allegheny Avenue. Ben and Jerry have nothing on this local institution, which serves homemade flavors like Chocolate Covered Pretzel (in vanilla ice cream), Ghost White Chip (vanilla ice cream with white chocolate chips), and seasonal specialties like Egg Nog and Pumpkin Pie.
Go team! The Towson University mascot stands guard over campus. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)
The old college try
One reason Towson is such a consummate city-suburb is the thousands of college students who inhabit the area for nine months of the year. is the second-largest of the Maryland state universities. Its 320-acre campus serves about 15,000 full- and part-time students. Originally opened as a teacher's school in 1866, the university now offers over 50 undergraduate majors and 26 master's degree programs.
When the students aren't invading the nearby clubs and bars, they are enjoying the lively cultural and social environment on campus. Twenty-one Towson Tiger varsity teams compete in the America East Conference of Division I.
The arts are popular on campus, as well. The Center for the Arts houses the Mainstage and Studio theaters, the Concert Hall, the , and the . The latter offers a permanent exhibit of Asian and African art in its gallery, as well as a revolving slate of concerts, lectures and films. In -- easily identified by its massive clock tower -- a theater accommodates dance, opera, musical recitals and dramatic performances. Most events are open to the public.
Just north of the Towson Town Center is , a private liberal arts college with about 1,400 students from 40 states and 20 countries. Like Towson University, Goucher hosts its share of the lively arts. The is a 1,000-seat theater that stages student-produced plays, musicals, recitals and concerts, as well as professional performances like the political satire Capitol Steps. , named for 1921 graduate Ruth Blaustein Rosenberg, hosts about five exhibits of regional artists each academic year.
Bibliophiles interested in Georgian England will enjoy the Jane Austen Collection in the . The Collection's holdings include early American additions of "Emma and Elizabeth Bennet" (later renamed "Pride and Prejudice"), as well as the first English edition of "Sense and Sensibility." Writings about Austen's life, and materials on Georgian furniture, architecture and interior design are also available for perusal. Hours are limited, but appointments may be made by calling 410-337-6347.
Past and present
Towson and Goucher opened when the city of Towson was shifting from rural backwater to urban center. In fact, the intellectuals the schools drew to the area most likely stimulated that turn from simplicity to sophistication.
Yet there are still traces of the humble Towson -- the one Thomas and William and Ezekiel knew -- in this burgeoning suburb. You'll see them along the equestrian trails on Goucher's campus. You'll stumble on them north of the Crossroads, at the historic, Revolutionary War-era . And south on Charles Avenue, where brick Colonials and graceful stone manors peek through dense thickets of trees. Or in the old neighborhoods like Stoneleigh, Anneslie and Rodgers Forge, where neighbors still call to each other from their windows.
This place where opposites attract embodies the biggest paradox of all. It's possible to enjoy the charm of another time while the trappings of the 21st century -- megamalls and mosh pits, carry-outs and cafes -- lie just around the corner.