Nestled behind the standard rowhouses lining Keswick Road and within earshot of humming traffic on Interstate 83 is a neighborhood largely removed from the crowding and fast pace of the city.
Residents of Stone Hill and Brickhill, which together consist of less than 100 houses, are accustomed to being overlooked by the bustling city around them -- and they like it that way.
After searching for a year, David and Alice Nelson visited a house on Bay Street -- just another house on their list in just another neighborhood, or so they thought.
"I was sort of surprised," recalls Mr. Nelson, 38. "I didn't know it existed. It was purely by chance."
A free-lance illustrator and designer, Mr. Nelson says he appreciates "the sheer definition" of the area with its uniform houses and physical boundaries -- the mill buildings, Falls Road and the back of Hampden.
And then there's the wildlife. Owls, herons, hummingbirds, snakes and possums are some of the creatures he and his wife, Alice, say they have seen on walks through the area.
Druid Hill Park lies to the west on the other side of I-83 and the woods of Wyman Park and the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus sit just to the east.
"It's kind of a pocket neighborhood -- kind of off to itself," says Charlotte Wanner, a Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. agent based in Roland Park. "You could drive right down Keswick Road and not even know that it's there. That's why people like it there."
Indeed, a first-time visitor would need detailed directions to find the neighborhood; many of the newer residents found it by accident.
Once found, the area leaves a lasting visual impression. Stone Hill's pre-Civil War black stone duplexes, surrounded by hardy green lawns and some picket fences, are more reminiscent of a mountain village than urban Baltimore. Most have only two levels, but a few have an attic-like third floor.
The streets are narrow and gravelly, except Field Street, which is literally a grassy field not accessible to cars.
On the other side of a complex of former mill buildings, the rowhouses of Brickhill, also dating from the 19th century, look like traditional Baltimore, except that they are effectively separated from the nearest Hampden rowhouses by the Mill Centre and the grounds of Florence Crittendon Services, a home for troubled youth and formerly the home of mill owner David Carroll.
Surrounded by a horseshoe of streets, the homes of Brickhill are connected by a paved alley. After decades of nightly visits across their backyard fences, longtime residents know each other's names and family histories.
The homes facing the trees along the Jones Falls are two-story, brick, most without basements. A few frame houses stand at the closed end. Homes overlooking the mill are four stories, with porches and main entrances on the second floor.
Brickhill residents have cleared trash from a hillside above Falls Road, planted flowers and created a neighborhood picnic area, complete with barbecue.
While mill manufacturing along the falls ceased years ago, and the city line has crept miles north, the enclave still retains the independence from the city of a town where life revolved around the mill.
In "Stone Hill, The People and Their Stories," Guy Hollyday, who moved into one of the duplexes 11 years ago, chronicles the lives of the area's early residents in a book of interviews and photographs.
In the book, residents tell how noise from the Mount Vernon Mill machines filled the air as raw cotton was brought into the first building, then rolled, spun and twisted into thread to be woven into sailcloth. To live in a mill-owned house, at least one member of a family had to work in the mill. Residents shopped in the mill-owned store and attended a mill-built church, which still stands on Chestnut Avenue.
Much of the self-contained life has disappeared, but a communal spirit remains. Stone Hill homeowners still own their streets and together clear them of snow and ice in winter.
Side by side
Socially, Stone Hill and Brickhill have been separated by more than the physical boundary of the mill. Home sales in both neighborhoods are rare, but Stone Hill has seen a greater influx of newer residents and a greater rise in home values.
In Stone Hill, a two-story, two-bedroom home sold for $107,000 last year. A two-story, three-bedroom home sold for $90,000.
In Brickhill, two-story, three-bedroom homes sell for about $50,000.
Recently, a perceived intrusion on the old-fashioned charm they cherish brought Stone Hill and Brickhill together. Residents from both groups of homes oppose a proposed elevated, illuminated billboard they say would be an all-too-visible encroachment of the city into their isolated haven.
The billboard would be anchored next to one of the mill buildings on Falls Road and rise above trees closest to Stone Hill to be visible to southbound expressway traffic. Residents gathered in September to raise money for the lawyer they hired to oppose the billboard proposal in court this week.
Both groups of houses are still home to descendants of mill workers, but the area has seen a gradual influx of artists, professionals, small-business owners, couples and young families as house-hunters discover small-town charm minutes from downtown.
Easy access to I-83
Falls Road by way of Chestnut Avenue leads quickly to Penn Station and the city's north-south arteries. And I-83 is easily accessible by way of 28th Street, or further north off Cold Spring Lane.
Cafe Hon, a homey eatery, and the eclectic store fronts of 36th Street, Hampden's main street, are within walking distance. Grocery shopping is a short car-trip away at the Giant in The Rotunda Shopping Center or the Super Fresh on 41st Street.
The cluster of large brick buildings that used to house the Mount Vernon Mill still anchor the neighborhood. The mills operated from the early 1800s to 1972, much of that time manufacturing cotton duck for large sailing vessels.
In a development project completed in 1985, the vacant buildings were transformed into artists' studios and offices featuring exposed-brick walls and wood floors. Today the Mill Centre is again bustling with more than 100 tenants, from potters and paper mache artists to travel agencies and consulting firms.
Christopher L. Glennon restores antique wood furniture in one of the outer buildings.
"It's like a New England mill town," he says. "That's what I always thought it was reminiscent of. You can sit back there and can't believe that [I-]83 is just over the hill."
Built more than a century ago with few luxuries, the homes require varying degrees of restoration and improvement.
Some longtime residents, like Roland Fletcher, inherited their homes from parents and will pass them down to children or other younger residents. Mr. Fletcher, whose grandmother began working in the mill as a girl, remembers when most of the houses in Brickhill lacked heat or indoor plumbing.
"Mom used to keep pork and sauerkraut on the mantle. That's how cold it was in the front room," Mr. Fletcher says, sitting in that same room, beneath the second-floor bedroom where a midwife helped his mother give birth to him seventy years ago.
The retired Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. appliance store supervisor years ago installed heat, air conditioning and an extra bathroom and has no plans to move.
"Everybody I know is around here," he said. "I have a little yard and patio. I'll probably die here."
Interspersed with residents born into the neighborhood are relative newcomers who stumbled onto the area and were hooked by its appearance and affordability.
Richard Eyring thought he would have to move to Fells Point for the view he desired until he gazed on the Jones Falls through bare December trees while house-hunting on Elm Avenue almost two years ago.
"I'm a big view person and this just ended up fitting my price," says the single 32-year-old mortgage banker. He said he paid about $50,000 for his two-story, two-bedroom house -- he turned a third upstairs room into a laundry and dressing room.
Painter Rebecca Pearl spotted her four-story Brickhill house when she was renting in Stone Hill on the other side of the mill.
"From my porch over there I could see these houses, and I thought: 'That would be a nice place to paint,' " says Ms. Pearl, 45, mother of an 11-year-old daughter. She snapped up her home overlooking the mill as soon as it went on the market five years ago.
Population: 200 (estimate for 83 homes)
Commuting Time to downtown Baltimore: 15 minutes
Commuting time to Washington: 1 hour
Public Schools: Hampden Elementary, Robert Poole Middle, Western and Baltimore Polytechnic Institute high
Shopping: Giant and shops in The Rotunda, on 40th Street, Super Fresh and Blockbuster Video on 41st Street, shops and eateries on 36th Street in Hampden
Nearest Mall: Mondawmin Mall, on other side of Druid Hill Park
Points of Interest: Mill Centre complex of art studios and offices, Baltimore Zoo in Druid Hill Park, Wyman Park, Baltimore Museum of Art, Cafe Hon restaurant
Zip Code: 21211
Average price of single-family home: Stone Hill: $90,500 (3 sales); Brickhill: (No sales)
* Average price for homes sold through the Mid-Atlantic Real Estate Information Technologies multiple listing service