Don't make the mistake of calling Catonsville a suburb.
This will annoy many of its residents, who'll quickly insist that it's a small town that just happens to be seven miles from the center of Baltimore.
A recent study by an urban research institute found that more and more people in America are choosing a small-town setting in which to live rather than a remote subdivision. And Catonsville has all the elements of a traditional small town, including a variety of housing that's within walking distance of a village center, complete with stores, schools, churches, parks, and a library.
This is the main reason why Catonsville has always been a popular place to live and why it's now one of the hottest real estate markets in the Baltimore metropolitan area.
"When we moved from Fells Point, we wanted to be able to walk to stores," said Mary McDonnell, an architect who lives on Cedarwood Road. "I can take my kids to get an ice cream cone without having to get into a car."
"It's a homey, small-town feel," said Mike Silverman, who moved into a large three-story Victorian house last January. His home is an example of the architectural richness that many outsiders don't know exists in Catonsville. Built in 1888 as a summer home, it has six bedrooms, several sleeping porches and an elevator. It's one of many elegant homes in the Oak Forest Park neighborhood off Frederick Road.
The recent popularity of homes in Catonsville has led to competing buyers, said Marybeth Brohawn and Meg Christian, agents who work as a team in the Catonsville office of Long and Foster Real Estate Inc.
"It's extremely hot; sale prices have frequently gone over listing prices," Brohawn said.
Houses, which can range in price from $70,000 to $400,000, can be on the market for only a few days before they're snatched up, Brohawn explained. The majority of the homes, built before World War II, are older, although there have been new developments in the past 10 years, such as Patapsco Woods and Foxhall Farm.
Brohawn agrees that the main attraction of Catonsville is its village-like atmosphere, but its convenience to work is almost as important. Two recent clients, Kent and Nancy Politch, moved from Kansas City and appreciate the easy commute. "It's 10 minutes door-to-door to my job with Bank of America in downtown Baltimore," Nancy Politch said.
The proximity to Baltimore-Washington International airport is also a big advantage, she added. Frederick Road remains the main commercial thoroughfare of Catonsville and the Chamber of Commerce is active in promoting local businesses and physically improving the area.
A new streetscape program that put in new sidewalks edged with brick and turn-of-the-century lighting has just been completed along part of Frederick Road, said Maureen Sweeney Smith, executive director of the Catonsville Chamber of Commerce.
Smith plans a marketing campaign to attract college students from the neighboring University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Catonsville Community College. "We are surrounded by all these students and they don't know we're here," said Smith, who would like to get the UMBC shuttle to stop along Frederick Road.
Smith also wants to attract more destination shoppers. Many from outside Catonsville already make a trip to Plymouth Wallpaper and to Bill's Music Store.
"We're one of the largest independent music stores on the East Coast that buys, sells and rents instruments," said Jim Mays, the manager, "and we have one of the largest displays of professional recording equipment."
In 1810, Charles Carroll of Carrollton commissioned his son-in-law, Richard Caton, to develop a parcel near the newly opened Frederick Turnpike and Rolling Road.
The turnpike became an important commercial link to the west, eventually connecting with the National Road in Cumberland. By the Civil War, businesses along the route had been established to serve travelers and local farmers.
In the post-Civil War era, the name Catonsville was synonymous with wealth and high society. Mansions were erected by some of the richest Baltimoreans, who wished to escape the city's summer heat. The administration building of Catonsville Community College is one of the few reminders left of this era.
The rich continued to build summer homes like Mike Silverman's until the end of the 19th century, but it was the advent of the railroad and the streetcar that signaled the beginning of Catonsville as a middle-class community. In 1918, to the relief of residents, Baltimore's annexation fell one mile short of the town. After World War II and through the 1960s, housing in Catonsville continued to be built.
The community is well aware of Catonsville's history and architectural heritage, and is taking the first steps to preserve it. The Old Catonsville Neighborhood Association is looking into the possibility of creating either a Baltimore County or National Register historic district. Such a designation can mean tax incentives for renovating a home or business if its historic character is maintained. Residents can fill out a petition in the association's fall newsletter if they want the county to establish a district.
While Catonsville has many things to offer in terms of amenities and convenience, McDonnell says it's really the sense of tradition that still exists here that's most important. It's what distinguishes a town from an anonymous suburb.
Annual events such as the Santa Parade, summer concerts at the high school, and the arts and crafts festival define Catonsville as a community.
"I like the Fourth of July parade best of all," McDonnell said. "People set out their lawn chairs with their names on them to stake out a spot along the parade route; that's a real hoot."
Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 15 minutes
Public schools: Catonsville Elementary, Hillcrest Elementary, Catonsville Middle, Catonsville High
Shopping: Frederick Road, Baltimore National Pike
Zip code: 21228
Homes on market: 86
Average listing price: $132,830
Average sales price: $129,380
Average days on market: 140*
Sales price as a percentage of listing price: 97.4 %*
*Based on 199 sales in the past 10 months as recorded by the Metropolitan Regional Information System.