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Highlandtown welcomed immigrants for 150 years of Baltimore history. Today, it still does.

Editor’s note: The Highlandtown profile is one article in The Sun’s City of Neighborhoods series, spotlighting Baltimore communities. Other neighborhoods in the series: Upton, Mount Winans, Stonewood-Pentwood-Winston, Dickeyville and Ashburton.

On the corner of Bank Street and Highland Avenue, a vibrant mural of gold and bluish green depicts European immigrants who originally settled in Highlandtown alongside today’s growing Latino community. A five-minute walk away is Sacred Heart of Jesus, a church built by Germans that now has a majority Latino parish. At Creative Alliance, a multi-generational art collective of Latinas called Artesanas Mexicanas is amplifying folk art and traditions taking root and thriving in Southeast Baltimore.

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“Neighbors are concerned about having a place to feel free without fear,” said Artesanas Mexicanas Coordinator Yesenia Mejia. “The women said they felt stress, depression, [and] loneliness, but with the group they found a family; they found themselves valued for who they are.”

Highlandtown is eclectic and creative, filled with taverns, Mariachi bands, Haven Street’s industrial corridor and what’s proclaimed as Baltimore’s first pizzeria. Twenty-year resident Susan Allenback was an assistant for film director John Waters, who used Highlandtown as inspiration for “Hairspray.“

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Many choose the greater Highlandtown area to live and work, like the owners of Black Acres coffee roastery, the beer and wine store Off the Rox, and the vintage shop Rust & Shine. On Gough Street and S. Conkling Street, Felicia Zannino-Baker owns Highlandtown Gallery. Across the street is her family’s funeral home that’s been running for over 60 years.

Susan Allenback, who has lived in Highlandtown for 20 years, stands on Eastern Avenue outside the Creative Alliance.
Susan Allenback, who has lived in Highlandtown for 20 years, stands on Eastern Avenue outside the Creative Alliance. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

History

Founded in 1866, Highlandtown derives its name from its central location, where the surrounding countryside could be seen for miles. Former Baltimore Sun reporter and “The Wire” writer Rafael Alvarez calls Highlandtown his hometown; he’s living in the 100-year-old house his father grew up in.

Alvarez says three phases “tell the entire history of the 20th century through this neighborhood.” The first phase was an old working-class neighborhood driven by factory work and Bethlehem Steel, followed by a collapse of industry and gentrification.

“[Highlandtown] still has all of its character,” said Kari Snyder, executive director of Southeast Community Development Corp., the nonprofit that has championed community revitalization and development in Highlandtown since 1975. “It’s still a community of close-knit people who really care about where they live. And there’s still a lot of diversity and cultural interest and a welcoming of immigrant residents.”

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Physical space

The neighborhood boundaries are Baltimore Street to Eastern Avenue and Ellwood Avenue to Haven Street. Row houses mesh with old warehouses and businesses that have been repurposed as condos, microbreweries and art spaces. Bus stop sculptures give a nod to Highlandtown’s Latino community and Arts & Entertainment District. Bikers and intramural sport enthusiasts head to Patterson Park.

The Bus stop sculpture outside the Creative Alliance at the Patterson.
The Bus stop sculpture outside the Creative Alliance at the Patterson. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Things to do

First Friday Art Walks are year round, giving a snapshot of the over 15 neighborhood murals and public art installations. Last August, Artesanas Mexicanas launched Tianquiztli — a free bimonthly outdoor market celebrating Latino cuisine, artists and musicians. Throughout the year, Highlandtown hosts Halloween, Hispanic heritage parades, folk festivals, and basement bar tours. Its Main Street is a 10-block stretch of retailers from five continents. Local gastronomy echoes the diversity of residents and immigrant history, from Peruvian food at Chicken Rico to the 107-year-old DiPasquale’s Italian Marketplace.

Gracie Williams of Baltimore, left, looks at jewelry made by Marina Delgado of Essex, right, at the Latin America Culture Market, which is held on occasional Saturdays in Highlandtown across from the Creative Alliance at the Patterson.
Gracie Williams of Baltimore, left, looks at jewelry made by Marina Delgado of Essex, right, at the Latin America Culture Market, which is held on occasional Saturdays in Highlandtown across from the Creative Alliance at the Patterson. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Demographics

According to an analysis by Baltimore’s planning department, Highlandtown’s population fell from 2,993 in the 1993 to 2,666 in the 2010 Census. In 2018, the median household income was $79,107, which is higher than the city’s median income; it had lower unemployment (4%) than the city at large (7%). The median home sales price from 2017-2019 was about 316,000. Data from the planning department in 2018 showed more than 90% of Highlandtown residents were white, with Hispanic residents as the next-largest racial demographic. Allenback says Highlandtown is made up not only of artists or retirees like herself, but a broad spectrum of white-collar and blue-collar workers. She has a firefighter and military pilot as neighbors.

Transit and walkability

According to Live Baltimore, Highlandtown has a Walk Score of 95 and a Bike Score of 80. With a Transit Score of 55, Highlandtown is connected by the light rail and the following bus routes: 21, 22, CityLink Blue and CityLink Navy.

Issues

Snyder notes that residents are concerned about the economic crisis impacting businesses and continued gentrification.

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Most crime in the area involves larceny and assault, according to city police data. Residents have reported incidents of having valuables stolen from unlocked cars.

After East Baltimore’s 21202, the second-highest concentration of COVID-19 cases per capita are in the 21224 ZIP code, which includes Highlandtown. Latinos make up 5.3% of Baltimore’s population but 9.68% of its COVID-19 cases.

“One of the communities most affected is the Latino community because of fear, fear of expressing what they feel, fear of calling a number and they don’t speak Spanish,” Mejia said. “There are people who do not know how to read or write; fear makes you not open up.”

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Yesenia Mejia, Artesanas Mexicanas coordinator, in the parking lot on East Ave. across from Creative Alliance. Tianquiztli, an outdoor market for local Latin American artists, will set up in this lot.
Yesenia Mejia, Artesanas Mexicanas coordinator, in the parking lot on East Ave. across from Creative Alliance. Tianquiztli, an outdoor market for local Latin American artists, will set up in this lot. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

Leadership

Highlandtown falls under District 1 and Councilman Zeke Cohen. Nick Kirley is president of the Highlandtown Community Association, and the president of the Highlandtown Business Association is Larry Wilson Jr. State Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Democrat, represents District 46. The House contingent is Democratic Reps. Robbyn Lewis, Brooke Lierman and Luke Clippinger.

Stephanie García is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities. Follow her @HagiaStephia

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