WHERE EVERYONE STILL SAYS 'HELLO'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Loch Raven Village has all the traits that Baltimore County officials find so worrisome in neighborhoods inside the Beltway.

The brick rowhouses, nearly 50 years old, lack the features of modern housing. The original homeowners are elderly, and many are moving away. Busy roads connecting commercial strips slice through the community. Poverty presses at its edges.

Still, the community of 1,472 rowhouses is proof that the county's older suburbs can thrive. Thanks to a vigilant community association and a neighborliness that dates back to the development's origins, Loch Raven Village provides a model for the county's campaign to preserve those areas -- and a testament to the power of community spirit.

Crime is low, schools are good, and homes -- ranging in price from $75,000 to $125,000 -- are moderately priced. And, although the urban problems of the 1990s exist in the community, which straddles Loch Raven Boulevard, it has changed little since it was created in the 1940s.

"We instantly felt at home," says Connie Meyer, who bought a house with her husband, Jeff Harpring, on Edgewood Road a few weeks ago.

When the couple set out to buy their first home, they looked at new subdivisions in Bel Air, White Marsh and Owings Mills but were disappointed by the houses and prices. Taking a tip from a co-worker, they drove by Loch Raven Village, with its neat, slate-roofed rowhouses, and yards splashed with impatiens and marigolds.

They stopped at one that was for sale, and the seller offered to walk with them around the neighborhood. Although it was almost dark, residents were out on their porches, and children played in the yards.

"Everyone said hello," Mr. Harpring recalls. "It was just an amazing sense of neighborhood."

That's the kind of enthusiasm P. David Fields, Baltimore County's community conservation coordinator, would like to see more often.

During the past year, the county has embarked on a campaign to revive older communities and attract homebuyers. Planners have been assigned to help community leaders identify problems and find solutions. Money has been set aside to pave alleys and repair streets.

But government efforts can go only so far, Mr. Fields says, adding, "For anything to be successful, it's got to be community-driven."

Loch Raven Village has shown more initiative than most. In 1987, community leaders decided to take steps to stave off urban decay by developing a plan. The 46-page document, which eventually was incorporated into the county's master plan, was one of the first community conservation plans in the county.

Some of the plan's recommendations, such as repaving alleys and changing zoning laws, required county action. Most, however, depended on the community.

For the past four years, the community has been working to fulfill the goals set for itself. Loch Raven won a grant to build a new playground and persuaded the county to reopen a senior center that had closed for lack of money. Residents have planted 300 trees, organized a citizens crime patrol and held cleanup drives.

Meanwhile, community association leaders spend hours attending zoning hearings and meeting with developers, to ensure that commercial projects complement the neighborhood. For example, they persuaded Papa John's Pizza to reduce the number of driveways on its property -- a move designed to control traffic flows. And they persuaded a local Royal Farms store to build a brick facade to blend in with the neighborhood.

Old-timers say the community's enthusiasm was there from the beginning.

The first residents were World War II veterans who pioneered Baltimore's suburbs. They paid $8,450 for the homes -- $8,990 for an end unit -- on land that just a few years before had been a cow pasture.

Streets were unpaved and public transportation nonexistent. Grocery stores hadn't been built.

But Laura and Walter Ruby, who found their first home there in 1946, fell in love with the community. "It was an ideal place for us," Mrs. Ruby says.

Mr. Ruby bought a 1937 Studebaker to drive to his job at the General Motors plant. Mrs. Ruby took two buses to her job at an auto body shop in the city. And in the neat rowhouse next to the community school, they raised two children.

The Rubys say that because the first residents shared the experiences of war and raising a young family, they soon became friends. There were neighborhood picnics, parades, crab feasts, carnivals and a baby-sitting circle in which parents took turns watching the children. And one day, Mr. Ruby came home from work to discover that neighbors had completed the fence he had started.

The Rubys, now in their 70s, still live in the home on Aberdeen Road, and although many of their old friends have moved away, their fondness for the community has not diminished. "Everybody gets together to keep the village together," Mrs. Ruby said.

Evidence of that unity came one recent night when more than 450 community residents packed Babcock Presbyterian Church to express concerns about a proposed 16-screen theater complex at the nearby Towson Marketplace.

Residents overflowed into the aisles and foyer to hear the debate. After two hours of questions and answers, the residents voted to oppose the project.

Frank Stromyer, president of the Loch Raven Village association and a supporter of the theater project, kept the meeting calm and orderly. "My greatest fear is that the community will be split. I do not want that to happen," he said.

The audience erupted in applause.

Mike Sarkin, an opponent of the theater project, described the essence of Loch Raven Village: "We have neighbors who look out for each other. My neighbors and I actually talk to each other. We have a peaceful place to call home."

But even with the Easter egg hunts, community yard sales, monthly newsletter and welcome packages for new residents, Loch Raven Village isn't immune from the ills of urban America.

Crime is growing concern. Residents keep a wary eye on the Loch Raven Village Apartments, which stand in the heart of the community and have a number of units set aside for low-income residents. And, because of a downturn in the housing market, the influx of new families has not kept pace with the exodus of older residents such as Phyllis and Sam Valenziano, who moved into the Oakcrest retirement community.

The Valenzianos, who had lived in the village since 1949, reluctantly gave up their home when it became difficult for them to care for it. "I can't say enough how great it was," Mrs. Valenziano says. "It was my dream home, and I didn't expect to leave it."

It took the Valenzianos eight months to sell their house, and they had to lower the price five times. The house sold for $86,000 -- $18,000 less than they wanted.

The community association, concerned with the number of homes languishing on the market and being turned into rental units, is trying to boost sales with a published brochure promoting the village as "an outstanding neighborhood in which to live and raise a family."

Although some residents move on to single-family detached homes, many are content to stay.

When Mr. Stromyer bought his house 11 years ago, he figured he would be there for just a few years. Now he can't imagine living anywhere else. "I like my neighbors," he says. "My kids enjoy their friends. Why move?"

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