Visiting Pumphrey is like stumbling on a secret.
You don't expectto find collard greens growing so close to Baltimore smoke stacks. You don't expect, passing the gravel company on Belle Grove Avenue, that you'll round a curve into a simpler era.
Nearly everybody goes to church in Pumphrey, where four generations of families sit next to each other on the pews of the Community Baptist and St. John's United Methodist churches, both more than 100 years old. Most of an estimated 800 residents know each other, and everybody knows everybody's business, too.
Bordered by railroad trackson the north, not far from the Patapsco River and the Harbor Tunnel Thruway, Pumphrey consists of just 11 streets, winding up a big hill south of Belle Grove Avenue. A century has passed since the first home was built on the hill, but in this small, close-knit black neighborhood, loyalty has remained.
"We look out for each other," says Phil Marner, president of the community association. "People are kind ofdedicated. It's just real close. Real close."
Marner, 74, sits inthe run-down community center, hair grizzled, belly protruding, talking about the tiny neighborhood just inside Anne Arundel County.
Pumphrey is old, like Marner himself, he says. Many of the single-family homes show signs of age; many older people have died. And Pumphreyisn't rich. Except for one hair salon and some building contractors,the business district is practically nonexistent.
It's hard to talk the county into cleaning the streets, says Marner. The playground at the center is so shabby some mothers refuse to let their children play there for fear they'll come home, as has happened, with splinters in their hands from decrepit equipment.
But to the people who live here, Pumphrey is home, and the place resonates with warmth.
"Iwouldn't want to live anywhere else," says Martha Oliver, a hairdresser at Wilma's Hair Culture. "Just about everybody knows everybody. If someone moves in, usually you know them, they're a family member ofsomebody. There are a few new faces, but not much."
One resident who grew up in Pumphrey and moved back with her husband is Ramocille Johnson, 44. "I was raised right here. When I graduated from Morgan (State University), I came right straight back home", back to the church that was for her the core of it all.
For Robin Cornish, anotherhairdresser, Pumphrey remains special despite the rare outbursts of violence. Two years ago, county police say, drug dealers from nearby Cherry Hill began to infiltrate the community. Residents protested; police cracked down, and the dealers cleared out. Early last year, a young man was shot walking with friends to a dance at Pumphrey's community center. Just a few weeks ago, neighbors reported hearing shots outside the community center, although police had no report of an incident.
But Cornish says the trouble comes from outside the community, not from anybody who lives there. "It feels real safe to me," she says. "We just started locking our doors. I left my purse in my car last night by accident, and I just let it there all night long."
County police agree that Pumphrey is quiet. "We don't get many complaints out there," says Sergeant Starr Turczyk, of the northern district."When we ran the drug dealers out of there, that was really the lastproblem we had as a community problem.
Marner does his part by keeping a stern eye out for wrong-doers, by serving as president of theTaxpayers Improvement Association and by overlooking the Keaser Community Center.
The fact that most residents are homeowners helps maintain the area's stability, says the Rev. Clarence Davis, pastor of St. John's. "You don't have a lot of renters. Most people know all the residents, and if the old people don't know the children by name, they know the family out of which they come. And the young people knowthat."
It is these older people who are perhaps the best insurance against trouble, people like Arnetta Beverly, 79, a Pumphrey institution and a pillar of the Community Baptist Church.
To residents like Miss Beverly, Pumphrey hasn't changed much since the days when she went sleigh-riding down the big hill with the high, wide view. The hill used to be so steep that youngsters on sleds would go clear across Belle Grove Road. The hill has been cut down five times to make itless steep, she says.
She points out the wood-frame building thatwas the one-room schoolhouse where she went to school. She remembersthe platform dances in another old Pumphrey building, still standing, where city musicians came and people had a good time. "There were no fights," she says. "It was real peaceful."
Beverly has worked all her life, from her childhood as a farmer's daughter to her career in private home care, with night school along the way. Now retired, she keeps Pumphrey going with senior groups and her work with the Women's Progressive League, which in 1986 started a scholarship fund for community youth who go on to college.
"I don't have no idle time," says Beverly, explaining her morning's errand to a neighbor's home. Indeed, says Naomi Marner, 72, president of the women's league: "Her energy never runs out. She walks anywhere. I see her go up and down that hill so often some days, I feel so tired I have to go lay down!"
But if neighbors are proud of Beverly, she is even prouder of them,ticking off success stories like the Jackson family, one of whose sons became a school principal.
Perhaps the community's biggest herois Lloyd Keaser, a Pumphrey youth who went on to win a silver medal in wrestling at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. He was inducted into the state's athletic hall of fame six years ago, and he gives the credit to his family and neighbors.
"Everywhere I go I talk about Pumphrey," says Keaser, 41, who lives in Virginia and works for IBM. "Yougo there and you come away with a real warm feeling, an envy of thattype of setting.
The closeness can become claustrophobic, though,says Andrea Hill, 31, who moved back to Pumphrey with her three-year-old son after working in Philadelphia.
For one thing, the area issmall. Pumphrey falls into a larger census tract, encompassing the area between Route 648 on the west, the Harbor Tunnel Thruway on the east, the Patapsco River on the north and the Baltimore Beltway on thesouth. The total population of that area in the 1990 census was 2,677 people, 883 black and 1,743 white, with a handful of Asians and Hispanics. Pumphrey itself has even fewer residents, say locals, who estimate the population anywhere between 500 and 900 people.
In this concentrated community, Hill lives with her mother in a house that was once the one-room schoolhouse. "Everybody's nice," she says. "It's really like one big family -- but I won't say happy family. People are going to be people, and there's nothing for the kids to do."
Take the playground at the Keaser Community Center. The playground, saysHill, looks horrible. "I won't let my son go since he came home withsplinters from the sliding board. Compared to the white neighborhoods, the community center is terrible." However, the programs at the center like Head Start, a federally funded pre-school program, are a good beginning, she says.
Davis attributes Pumphrey's closeness to its isolation, but admits that the separation from other communities sometimes leaves Pumphrey behind in terms of services. "We are concerned about the Keaser Center," he says, with its classes ranging from nutrition to kick-boxing. "At this point, it's almost a day-to-day thing in terms of trying to raise enough funds to keep the heat on and pay the utility bills. We would dearly love to have some help from thecounty."
"The street problem has never been put to my attention,"says County Councilman George Bachman, D-Linthicum, whose district includes Pumphrey, "but other problems they's gotten in touch with me and we worked out a solution. It's a small, self-contained community and they take a lot of pride."
But Davis worries that as the population continues to age, the younger people may not stay. "There is some room for growing and building homes, but those who move upscale I think may have a difficult time within this community," he says. Mostof the homes are small, middle-income homes. Families are rearing children with middle-class values who are going on to college, the minister says, "interested in becoming doctors and what-have-you. The larger issues is whether they will come back to this community to live."
Ramocille Johnson, a professional who with her husband did move back to Pumphrey, says she was lured by the hope of preserving the area. "We just did not want to see the tradition and family disappear," she says. "We all agree that topography-wise, it is the best place tolive. The view is fabulous and we're close to everything."
She and her husband decided there was hope for the area and they would "make the sacrifice rather than build and spend money in Columbia," Johnson says.
"We still have a lot of misgivings. The neighborhood is not as pristine as we'd like it to be. But I don't think my children have missed anything culturally by being here. I'm proud to say we arepart of this neighborhood. It's home."