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Sense of community mingles with history Area fights to keep urban blight away

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's Saturday morning, and Cusack's is busy. The restored deli, coffee bar and sandwich shop at the corner of Bolton and Mosher streets is bustling with people, some sitting outside with newspapers and coffee.

Around the corner on Park Avenue, 40-year resident Mary Paulding Martin is watching the Wimbledon tennis matches on TV. But she takes time to show a visitor her mid-1800s rowhouse and her tiny garden, with its brick walk and volunteer magnolia tree.

Down the street at the Bolton Swim and Tennis Ltd., a private club, dozens of children and their parents make use of the pool and tennis courts. Their laughter can be heard over the high fence in the alley separating the club from a group of contemporary brick townhouses.

Up a block on Lanvale Street, Nancie Verkerke, founder and co-editor of the Bolton Hill Bulletin, the newsletter that has chronicled the neighborhood for more than 20 years, is about to show off the John Street Park, a tiny oasis of green in the center of a block of well-tended 19th-century rowhouses.

Mrs. Verkerke chats about the neighborhood crab feast honoring the police who patrol the community, the annual Festival on the Hill, a huge block party sponsored by Memorial Episcopal Church, the Easter egg hunt at Rutter Mill Park and "Happy Hour," the first Friday event at the church where everyone in Bolton Hill is invited for wine and hors d'oeuvres in exchange for $3 or an hors d'oeuvre for the food table.

Everywhere you wander in Bolton Hill -- 170 acres bordered by Mount Royal on the east, Eutaw Place on the west, Dolphin Street on the south and North Avenue on the north -- people are out and about.

A man in his 30s plays hide-and-seek with a fuzz ball of a dog on the corner of Lafayette and Bolton streets. A young couple, sitting on the front steps of a century-old rowhouse, are talking. A man in jeans and T-shirt paints the intricate Victorian lattice decorating the front porch of one of the few free-standing houses in the neighborhood.

On Eutaw Place, three older women, attired in Sunday best, walk away from the Marlborough Apartments, now senior-citizen housing. The Marlborough was once the home of the Cone sisters, who endowed Baltimore with their modern art collection.

This is Bolton Hill, listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Most streets are handsome and well-tended, dotted with trees and sprinkled with nine little parks, and homes with painted doors and large shuttered windows.

But as North Avenue looms, a few run-down or boarded-up buildings appear. Despite its reputation as one of downtown Baltimore's premier neighborhoods, "Bolton Hill has its share of crime and grime problems like any other city community," says J. Michael Flanagan, president of the Mount Royal Improvement Association, formed in 1928.

Security company hired

"What makes us different is our sense of community," he says, noting that residents work hard to keep up Bolton Hill, often fighting with City Hall over zoning, traffic and crime -- and trying to hold the surrounding urban blight at bay.

Residents have hired a private security company to patrol streets and formed Citizens on Patrol, a crime prevention program manned by volunteers.

"When you decide to live in the city, you just have to accept the problems that come with urban living," says Diana Blake, who grew up in the Washington Square section of New York and moved to Bolton Hill in 1955.

VTC "This place is charming and unhurried. It is also fun and fascinating, especially with the students from Maryland Institute around."

Bolton Hill -- named by Ms. Martin and her garden club cohorts for a house tour in the 1950s -- was originally known as Mount Royal. It developed in the mid- to late-19th century on land from three estates, one of which was Bolton, present home of the 5th Regiment Armory.

From its beginnings, Bolton Hill was built for upper-middle-class people, including well-to-do doctors from Johns Hopkins Hospital, educators, lawyers, architects and merchants with such names as Hutzler and Brager, who built huge palace-homes along Eutaw Place.

Magnet for Southerners

After the Civil War, the area was a magnet for uprooted Southerners, who brought with them a gracious lifestyle that infused Bolton Hill with Southern charm, according to Frank Shivers, author of "Bolton Hill: A Baltimore Classic" and neighborhood resident since 1955.

But in the early part of this century, the neighborhood showed some signs of wear, with the advent of the automobile and the first suburbs. By the end of World War II, the exodus was in full gear and many of the grand houses had been divided into apartments.

The Mount Royal Improvement Association sprang up in the middle of the urban renewal movement of the 1950s to fix up the neighborhood. "City Hall thought we were a fringe neighborhood that would go the way of other fringe neighborhoods," says Mr. Flanagan. "But we proved them wrong."

Today, Bolton Hill is primarily, but not entirely "liberal, white and Democratic," Mr. Flanagan says.

"It is a politically active neighborhood and one that is very tolerant of different lifestyles," he says, noting the large number of gay residents. He estimates that the area is 60 percent white, 40 percent black, and says the community has worked hard to encourage racial diversity.

In addition, he says, there are a range of ages, from families with babies to retired couples and senior citizens.

As it was 100 years ago, many residents come from the professions, including doctors, lawyers and architects, but there are also artists, including students from the nearby Maryland Institute College of Art, politicians and editors. The area's most famous residents were Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald -- Fitzgerald wrote "Tender is the Night" while renting a house on Park Avenue.

No more bargains

House prices vary considerably, but there are no bargains around as in the 1970s when the city offered properties to anyone who would move in and renovate them, an offer that brought Buzz Cusack, co-owner of Cusack's, to Bolton Hill and initiated his 20-year love affair with the community.

Real estate agent Regina Minniss, with O'Conor, Piper and Flynn, estimates that prices range from $100,000 for smaller homes on streets like Rutter to nearly $300,000 for larger, more grand homes along Park Avenue and Bolton Street.

Occasionally, a more expensive property comes on the market -- like the restored home on Bolton Street, listed for $364,000 -- but this is the exception.

About 95 percent of residents with children send them to private schools, according to Mr. Flanagan.

BOLTON HILL

Population: 5,253 (1990 Census)

Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 5-minute ride, 30-minute walk

Commuting time to Washington: 55 minutes

Public schools: Mount Royal elementary and middle, Douglas High

Shopping: Bolton Hill Plaza on McMechen; a few convenience stores in Sutton Place Apartments on Park Avenue

Nearest Mall: Harborplace and The Gallery at Harborplace, Pratt Street

Points of Interest: Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Lyric Theater, Walters Art Gallery, Maryland Historical Society, University of Baltimore, Maryland Institute College of Art, Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University

Average price of single-family homes: $156,474 (27 sales)

ZIP codes: 21217

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