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Southwest enclave in city proud of coming full circle


Barre Circle residents are annoyed that more people can't find their self-described "enclave of civility."

This Southwest Baltimore neighborhood sits within sight of Oriole Park along the western edge of Martin Luther King Boulevard. In the 1970s it was one of the old neighborhoods city government showcased to coax the middle class to live downtown.

Today, its cleaned bricks have weathered nicely, and moss grows on garden walls. Street trees planted 15 years ago are so tall they've had to be pruned. And the neighborhood even has put together a tour Saturday featuring some houses that are for sale.

"It is a way to look inside Barre Circle," said Judy Aleksalza, a video editor who lives in the 1000 block of Barre St.

Looking inside wasn't such a good idea 20 years ago.

"A rat wouldn't live in it and a roach wouldn't stop by," is how resident Bill Smothers described the way his Barre Street house looked in its derelict condition.

Now, he and other residents meet regularly for neighborhood cleanups. There doesn't seem to be much dirt to complain about.

"We think we get high marks for livability," said Ms. Aleksalza. "But so few people realize we are here. The maps leave us off downtown. The street patterns are old and confusing.

"Yet I would like more people to be aware that this is an enclave of civility."

Not that every Barre Circle moment is polite or courteous. Residents acknowledge their share of urban trouble: car thefts and burglaries -- and regret seeing families move away when the children are ready for school.

But they also emphasize the convenience -- to the harbor and six-minute walks to Camden Station and MARC trains, the downtown cultural scene and restaurants.

Laurie Cushman moved to the neighborhood from Montgomery County eight years ago. Her husband, a National Institutes of Health research scientist, commutes back there weekdays.

"It was too homogeneous in the suburbs for us. That wasn't the America we wanted to know," she said.

But she added: "It hasn't been absolutely perfect. I've been mugged here." She pointed to a spot across McHenry Street from her home. "I gave him my money, then I yelled and screamed," she recalled.

A few minutes later she said, "You've got to have a sense of humor to live here," when she spots a plastic trash can stenciled with the legend "Stolen From..."

Their daughter, in high school then, liked the idea of living in the city. She took the No. 11 bus with a classmate from Cherry Hill to Friends School in North Baltimore.

The houses were once to be demolished for Martin Luther King Boulevard. But when road designs were tamed, the city was left with several blocks of surplus mid-19th-century workers' houses.

Homesteaders got to work, leaving a legacy of 1970s design and decorating signatures: exposed brick walls, lots of hunter green and deep rose paint colors, track lighting, overhead paddle fans, heat pumps, skylights and atria with interior balconies.

Some of the individual homes used an approach that was theatrical when compared with other Baltimore rowhouses.

Owners often installed dramatic glass walls overlooking rear patios. One young lawyer had a wall of college library-style bookshelfs installed with a rolling ladder.

As soon as many of the original occupants fulfilled their 18-month obligatory residencies, they sold their homes, often achieving nearly double their original $40,000 to $60,000 investment.

At that point a cycle began. As the original renovators moved, students at the University of Maryland's law, medicine and dental schools often took their places as renters.

The mix of homeowners, said Paul Zuber, a University of Maryland third-year law student from Albany who moved here earlier this year, keeps the students from trashing the neighborhood.

"They make us aware not to throw old furniture on the street," he said.

"If I rented an apartment, it might cost me $500 a month. Here, three or four students rent a house for $300-something a piece," Mr. Zuber said.

Laurie Cushman believes that the students "give the neighborhood a certain vibrancy."

"They are always out circulating, walking back and forth to school," she said. "We homeowners come home and stay put."

The Barre Circle home tour is scheduled for 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday. Sept. 23. Homes will be open on McHenry, West Pratt, Scott and Ramsay streets. Literature will be available at McHenry and Barre streets.

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