An urban neighborhood with anomalous aspects


As an urban neighborhood, Federal Hill is something of an anomaly.

It's not crime-ridden. It isn't particularly dirty. Its boulevards are often quiet, even at midday. And there's not much traffic.

While it has some hallmarks of city life, such as a Citizens Patrol, Federal Hill also is quaintly suburban (right down to the shady back yards), with communal pastimes including a dog-walkers group, garden club, and family play group.

In June, Federal Hill took on even more of a suburban feel with the opening of a new playground on top of the hill itself. On weekdays, mothers and children can be seen playing on the new swings, slides and climbing equipment. The hill -- on which picnickers enjoyed harbor breezes as far back as 1788 -- is the one constant in a neighborhood that has been undergoing a gradual, but steady, transformation over the last 20 years.

That's when professional couples and young families began taking advantage of tax incentives to buy and renovate dilapidated properties.

In 1985, Jill Ferguson and her family moved to Federal Hill from Philadelphia. They renovated an old townhouse and today are happily settled in with two children attending Federal Hill Elementary School (which is public).

"We picked this area because it offers everything without having to get into your car and drive," Ms. Ferguson says.

Grocery shopping is convenient, with a Metro Food Market in nearby Locust Point and the historic Cross Street Market just a few blocks away. And the proximity to Inner Harbor diversions is a real plus.

"We use the Science Center and the Aquarium as our living room and playroom on rainy days. And in winter, we ice skate at Rash Field," Ms. Ferguson said. In addition, she helps organize multifamily picnics on top of Federal Hill and is active in the elementary school's new parent-teacher organization.

Many older residents approve of the slow gentrification of their TTC neighborhood. Marie Rodgers, now 75, purchased a historic house on Warren Street for under $10,000 in 1972.

"It was the best decision I ever made," she says.

At the time, Ms. Rodgers worked for McCormick & Co., which was downtown then, so she was able to walk to work. Even today, she says, "I don't use the car much because I walk everywhere."

In spring, a crepe myrtle tree bursts into purple blooms in the yard adjacent to her home. Ms. Rodgers likes the sophistication -- the restaurants and shops -- that have accompanied the area's increasingly prosperous population.

But while property values have soared (townhomes and condominiums in the $300,000-to-$400,000 range are not uncommon), one of the charms of the area is that gentrification is by no means complete -- and may never be. Many properties still list in the $50,000-to-$90,000 range.

On the one hand, streets like East Montgomery Street resemble well-heeled Georgetown far more than the rough-and-tumble working-class community this once was. And Ryland Homes has just completed a row of luxury garage townhomes on Charles Street.

On the other hand, on East Cross Street, and elsewhere, rowhouses desperate for new paint and alleyways strewn with debris are very much in plain view.

It's this mixture of old and new, executive and blue-collar, that residents seem to savor. In Federal Hill, it is possible to toggle back and forth between the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries in the space of five minutes. On the old hill itself, there's the 1882 monument to Col. George Armistead. Two streets down is the One World Cafe, which offers cappuccino, biscotti, and Tarot readings. And then there's the Cross Street Market, which has changed little in 40 years.

Henry Reisinger, who grew up on Hamburg Street in the 1950s and 1960s, owns Fenwick's Choice Meats, a shop in the Cross Street Market that has been in business a half-century. Although it has been a struggle to keep the shop going in an age of supermarkets, he doesn't begrudge the changes that have taken place in his neighborhood. "It's been a good transformation for the city as a whole, as long as people keep coming"

Cindy Conklin, a Realtor with O'Conor, Piper & Flynn's Federal Hill office, is fairly sure that people will indeed keep coming. She and her husband are on their third home in Federal Hill, within walking distance of her office.

Perhaps the ultimate compliment one can pay to this urban community masquerading as a suburb is the degree to which neighborhood loyalty has bred a genuine feeling of safety. Ms. Conklin says she feels safer in Federal Hill than in Ruxton, where she used to live, "because everybody knows everybody."


Population: 2,339 (1990 census)

Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 5-10 minutes on foot

Commuting time to Washington, D.C.: 45 mins.-1 hr.

Public schools: Federal Hill Elementary, Francis Scott Key Elementary/Middle, Southern High

Shopping: Southside Marketplace; Harborplace; Cross Street Market; Fort Avenue

Malls: Security Square, 15 minutes), White Marsh (20 minutes)

Points of interest: Federal Hill Park; Inner Harbor; Restaurant Row (South Charles Street) ; Fort McHenry; American Visionary Art Museum (opening in November)

Avg. price of single-family home: $121,390 *

ZIP code: 21230

* Average price for houses sold through the Mid-Atlantic Real Estate Information Technologies multiple listing service January 1995 through the present.

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