Old-timers used to call it Skulltown, a moniker bestowed on Irvington because of its three sprawling cemeteries. Loudon Park, Mount Olivet and New Cathedral cemeteries still dominate the landscape of this Southwest Baltimore nook, but the nickname isn't used much anymore. It's become a misnomer since a revitalization effort that has the streets teeming with life.
Roughly bordered by Old Frederick Road to the north, Hilton Street on the east, Maidens Choice Run on the south and Beechfield Avenue to the west, the neighborhood is home to many people intent on preserving a safe, comfortable life within Baltimore City.
"A lot of people want this neighborhood to work. Because of the diversity of people here, there is a tremendous wealth of talent," said Michael Sarbanes, vice president of the Irvington Community Association.
Sarbanes knows the city's neighborhoods. The son of U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, he grew up near Memorial Stadium and later worked with community associations as an attorney.
In 1994, when the younger Sarbanes and his wife decided to buy a home, they looked in a community that he had visited through the years, and of late had thought was becoming "the best neighborhood in Baltimore."
"We had certain criteria: an economically and racially diverse area, lots of green space with parks and streams, affordable prices, convenient location for my wife's commute to Washington and decent schools," he said, adding, "and we wanted to be in the city. We found it all here." The Sarbaneses moved into a rowhouse at the end of a dead-end street. Their property leads into a wooded stretch and dips into Maidens Choice Run. Occasionally, a deer wanders through their yard.
"It's great to be so close to the city, but still be surrounded by green," Sarbanes said, noting that the home is three miles from downtown Baltimore and two miles from the Edmondson Avenue MARC Station.
The couple fell in love with their house and the neighborhood. "When we moved in, the people across the street brought us a sweet potato pie. That was it. I knew we made the right decision."
That close-knit feel is evident in several areas of Irvington. There are blocks of brick rowhouses -- like Rosecroft Terrace -- each with personalized touches such as picket fences or elaborate gardens. Avenues such as Monastery, where children play on front porches under colorful awnings. And grandiose streets such as Augusta, with three-story ornate Victorian homes framed by blooming dogwoods.
Prices range from a $40,000 traditional Baltimore rowhouse to the $100,000, five-bedroom, renovated Victorian homes.
The cemeteries' vast expanses of green and elegant gravestones offer a respite from city blocks. The largest, 350-acre Loudon Park, was built in the 1860s as a community park, with picnic areas and walking paths. Smaller wooded areas around the Maidens Choice Run stream and the ample greenery on the blocks off Frederick Road also lend an arboreal air.
Irvington could have gone the way of other now-depressed urban neighborhoods. In the late 19th century it was considered a resort community. Later -- in the 1930s and '40s -- it became home to the working-class families employed at Southwest Baltimore factories, giving it a tremendous variety of housing stock. Yet, the area could not protect itself from the problems that have plagued other inner-city neighborhoods.
Suburban growth to the west drained the population, and competition from malls destroyed a once-thriving commercial district. Urban blight to the east encroached, making the neighborhood vulnerable to crime and drugs.
The bakery and movie theater closed; taverns were boarded up. By the mid-'80s, Irvington had dilapidation at its doorstep.
But residents refused that destiny. A decade ago, the residents rallied and nursed their neighborhood back to health, home by home, block by block. They formed a community association, organized cleanups and flower box campaigns.
Community leaders knew that, to win their war, economic resources were needed. They found them in the citywide nonprofit Neighborhood Housing Services. NHS came in 1985, offering ways to finance homes or acquire rehabilitation funds and a revolving loan service.
"Absolutely, it's been a success," said Michael Braswell, executive director of NHS. Braswell credits joint efforts by NSA and community leaders with attracting more than 200 families to Irvington in the past decade. He says home ownership rates are now near 60 percent.
The Rev. Gregory Paul of St. Joseph's Monastery has noticed the difference. "This is a good middle- and working-class community who take pride in their homes, who care for them," he said.
Paul served as pastor between 1976 and 1984 and returned in 1991. "There has been a tremendous change in the community; these people want to work together. New people are moving here and settling in. It's stabilizing."
Crime still exists, however.
Beyond the loitering and minor crimes reported in the residential areas, a portion of Frederick Road between Irvington and Collins streets is generally acknowledged to be drug turf. Sarbanes calls it "our Achilles heel."
Residents are pooling their resources to buy a vacant lot there and have worked with the city government and NHS to build a senior center there.
Sarbanes is confident that the efforts will work. He has seen residents fight off similar problems in the past, recalling the night he and a handful of neighbors saved a similar block.
Residents had noticed young men who were not from the neighborhood milling about. Suspecting the worst, community leaders gathered on a front porch across from the men. "We just stared them down, let them know we were watching. They left and never came back."
The signs of community empowerment are hard to miss in Irvington. Rare is a street corner without a Blockwatchers sign to let strangers know that neighbors are looking out for each other.
At an NHS office on Frederick Road, a motto is prominently displayed in the window: "Irvington -- where houses become homes and people become neighbors."
Population: 4,283 (1990 census)
Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 15 minutes
Public Schools: Sarah M. Roach Elementary School, Beechfield Elementary School
Point of interest: Loudon Park Cemetery
Zip Code: 21061
Average price of a single family home: $55,695*
*Based on sales through Metropolitan Regional Information System
Pub Date: 5/18/97