Nestled virtually within a stone's throw of the ever-expanding downtown Towson is East Towson, a small enclave that was originally settled by former slaves freed after the death in 1790 of Capt. Charles Ridgely, owner of the Hampton Mansion.
East Towson, which is believed to be the county's first community, has remained a stable black neighborhood for more than 200 years. But that stability is periodically threatened by efforts to further develop downtown Towson. The community is almost continually fighting to protect itself from the encroachment of Towson's sprawl.
Over the past 30 years, Towson has undergone some major development projects, most recently the reopening of the expanded Towson Town Center mall and the opening of Towson Commons, an office and retail complex on York Road.
Residents of East Towson are determined to protect their community from encroaching development and to attract new people to the neighborhood, which is listed by the county as an enhancement area, an community targeted for more owner-occupied housing and physical improvements.
The community of small detached, wood-frame homes roughly defined by Virginia Avenue on the west, Hillen Road on the south, Railroad Avenue on the east, and an irregular boundary on the north, appears to be well on its way to success in its preservation efforts. But the fight has been long and strenuous.
Thirty years ago, East Towson had between 150 and 160 single-family, owner-occupied homes. It was a quiet, serene neighborhood where everyone knew everyone else.
And while the neighborliness remains, the community today has only about 83 single-family homes; the others on the periphery of the neighborhood were sold before it was designated an enhancement area.
East Towson had about 400 residents in 1970; by 1990 the number had fallen to 335. Yet the community, which recently has been working with the County Office of Planning and Zoning, is determined to reverse this decline.
Virtually crime-free, East Towson has been adversely affected by increased traffic. But the first issue to threaten the community dated to the late 1950s-early 1960s.
The county planned a road which would provide a bypass of the commercial areas, but would split the community in half.
"We managed to fight the [Fairmount Avenue] road until the early- to mid-1980s," said Shelley Jones-Hawkins, president of the Northeast Towson Improvement Association. "However, it was largely built and completion of the road was expected in 1989, but with community pressure," she said, "the county has reconsidered."
In the early 1970s the community faced another threat as the zoning was changed to encourage commercial development.
"To protect the area from speculative buyers, we attempted to get a historical designation in 1978," Ms. Jones-Hawkins said in a recent interview. "But we were unsuccessful."
The Baltimore County Master Plan, 1989-2000, designated several regions as "enhancement areas," and the East Towson property owners began working to develop an action plan to stabilize the neighborhood.
The first suggestion in the community's plan is to increase housing and try to attract young, white-collar workers to the community, 60 percent of whose residents are 65 years old or older.
The community is working with Ted Rouse of Struever Bros., Eccles, and Rouse, a Baltimore development firm, to build housing on several vacant lots.
Struever Bros. hopes to build homes that would sell for between $70,000 and $80,000. Houses in the neighborhood currently sell in the $50,000 and $60,000 range.
On April 25, Christmas In April, a national volunteer housing organization to help the elderly, repaired 12 houses in East Towson.
According to Ms. Jones-Hawkins, this is the first time the organization, which has more than 1,500 volunteers, has ventured into Baltimore County.
"We never felt the community would entirely disappear," Ms. Jones-Hawkins says.
"This community is a wonderful African-American role model in a time when such role models are desperately needed," she says. "East Towson will preserve its rich cultural heritage far beyond the year 2000."