Rognel Heights: a 'jewel' but still well-kept secret Black middle-class enclave overlooked


Rognel Heights is the kind of Baltimore neighborhood that almost nobody notices -- hard-working, middle-class, well-maintained and nearly all black.

Mention black prosperity in Maryland -- home to the nation's most affluent black population, according to the 1990 census -- and the mind turns to city neighborhoods such as Ashburton and Ten Hills, or suburban pockets of privilege in Prince George's County, Columbia and Baltimore County's Liberty Road corridor.

But there is also Rognel Heights, which is short on well-tailored professionals in flashy sedans but chock full of steady working people and a growing number of retirees. With a median household income over $36,000, it is among Baltimore's premier black neighborhoods.

Travel six miles due west of downtown along a shabby strip of Edmondson Avenue and turn right onto Walnut Avenue.

You enter a shady enclave -- pre-World War I frame houses, post-World War II brick duplexes and a handful of churches -- where only the buzz of an electric lawn-trimmer pierces the silence of a weekday afternoon.

Rognel Heights is sandwiched between Edmondson Village and Hunting Ridge, and is often confused with one or the other. In fact, it is older than both, dating to 1895 when a developer bought the Rogers and Nelson estates, put in a private water system and started building houses.

Nearly a century later, it's still a well-kept secret.

"There are a lot of exciting things going on, but nobody knows about it because nobody comes up here," said Judith Mayo, a retired welder in her 60s and a tireless volunteer whom some call "the mayor of Rognel Heights."

From her front porch on Walnut Avenue, the community's main drag, Mrs. Mayo keeps a watchful eye on her beloved neighborhood kids and sees the comings and goings of some quietly interesting neighbors, including a remarkable foster mother and a world-champion athlete. (More on them later.)

On this particular afternoon, the excitement radiates from the bright, airy Pratt branch library on Edmondson Avenue, where 85 children and parents are celebrating the completion of the summer "Race to Read" program.

The champion readers are two Rognel Heights children, Cory and Danielle McCray, sibling students at School No. 89, Rognel Heights Elementary. Cory read 103 books this summer and Danielle 105.

Their mother, Renee, a 33-year-old secretary, raises them by herself in a small apartment complex tucked alongside Leakin Park at the neighborhood's north end. She worries about loitering teen-agers and the drug traffic that has engulfed much of West Baltimore.

But Ms. McCray likes the school, whose 450 students boast a 94 percent attendance rate and score well above the city average on standardized tests. The children enjoy the kind of parental support that drew more than 120 dads to a father-son breakfast last year.

Ms. McCray aspires to be a Rognel Heights homeowner. Every time she drives home past a house for sale along Walnut Avenue, "I wish it was mine," she said.

Councilman Lawrence A. Bell, D-4th, says Rognel Heights is "one of those neighborhoods I'd like to see us to do more to market to younger people. The city needs to focus resources on the Edmondson Avenue corridor. It has deteriorated, and if you just drove through there, you wouldn't know Rognel Heights was there.

"It's a jewel," he said.

The Edmondson Village Shopping Center, for years an eyesore on the edge of Rognel Heights under the absentee ownership of fTC the late billionaire Harry Weinberg, has rebounded somewhat under new management. But old-timers recall when they could do their Christmas shopping at "the Village," or bowl a few games and catch a movie there.

Nearly a quarter of Rognel Heights residents are over 55, and it often falls to them to keep the community looking as good as they remember it. They are people like Judith Mayo -- and Mary Johnson, Thelma Bonnet and Virginia Chin.

Mrs. Johnson, a retired postal worker, and her husband, James, a custodial supervisor at Lafayette Market, moved to a spacious Rognel Heights duplex in the mid-1960s.

That was the height of the racial flip-flop that made the mostly white neighborhood 87 percent black in a decade. (It is now 97 percent black.)

Mrs. Johnson, a past president of the community association, doesn't mind gently nudging neighbors to keep their lawns mowed and hedges trimmed. "It's just nice to go through your block and see your neighborhood be kept so that you're proud of it. People are surprised when they get here," she said.

She also doesn't mind watching out for Mrs. Bonnet, her 75-year-old white neighbor, a retired Edmondson High science teacher who moved to Rognel Heights in 1949 and never left.

"I can close my house up, go away to visit my children, and my neighbors look out for me," Mrs. Bonnet said. "I know that's not so everywhere."

Virginia Chin, a 35-year resident, calls herself and her husband, Leslie, two of Rognel Heights' "oddballs -- a Caucasian married to a Chinese living in a black neighborhood."

When "blockbusting" real estate agents were advising whites to move during the 1960s, Mrs. Chin said, her family stayed. They never regretted it. "I thought this place would liven up. Actually, it's quieter now," she said.

Rognel Heights is indeed quiet, but behind its doors are some intriguing people.

There is Marie Smallwood, 66, who moved there with husband William in 1969. She has taken in more than 100 foster children, many in the rambling, nine-bedroom house on Walnut Avenue. She has tried to retire, but social workers still call her with their toughest cases.

"Love, love, love," Mrs. Smallwood said, explaining her parenting philosophy.

If Rognel Heights has a celebrity, it's Eddie Butcher, 33. When he parades down Walnut Avenue with a huge, jewel-studded belt on each shoulder, there's often a group of youngsters in his wake. Mr. Butcher is world light-middleweight champion of kick-boxing, a karate-like martial art. He trains at the Rognel Heights Recreation Center.

Young and old, Rognel Heights residents tend to sink deep roots in their quiet enclave.

"You seldom hear anything drastic happening on Walnut Avenue. Guess I'd better touch some wood," said Judith Mayo, tapping on a front-porch windowsill.


Population (1990): 2,413

Race: 97.2 percent black, 1.9 percent white, 0.9 percent others

Median household income (1990): $36,078

Households: 758

576 owner-occupied

182 renters

Average household size: 3.18 persons

Families with children: 316

158 headed by married couples

130 by single women

28 by single men

Families on welfare: 92

Avg. sale price of homes (1990): $46,862

Median rent (1990): $364

* All figures are for the census tract bounded by Edmondson Avenue on the south, Edmondson Village Shopping Center on the west, Seminole Avenue on the north and Woodington Road on the east, which includes the west edge of the Edmondson Village neighborhood.

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