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A turn through Mount Vernon


I'LL LET YOU in on a little secret: There are mornings when I just can't face work. I postpone the eventual by stepping off the bus a few stops early and strolling around one of my favorite walking neighborhoods.

I delay what is on the day's agenda by passing through the streets of Mount Vernon, the place where the 19th century lives on like a merchant prince or grand society woman. I can't afford all this habitat, but the surroundings make for delicious sightseeing.

So many people visit the neighborhood only for the state occasions - such as Wednesday's Flower Mart, when Mount Vernon Place promises to overflow with people renewing this quaint Baltimore tradition.

On my walks down Cathedral Street, across tiny Tyson, across genteel Madison, I like to snoop at the houses, check out the billowing climbing roses, observe the residents and occasionally fantasize about what it would be like to live here. More than once I've been tempted to pursue one of the 1840 palaces, but then I start thinking mortgages and the need for house painters and housekeepers.

And yet Baltimore's Mount Vernon is indeed a live-in neighborhood, where, residents proudly point out, each block is a crazy quilt of incomes and professions. And unlike other nearby city neighborhoods that act more like cloistered suburbs, Mount Vernon is open to all, day and night, no questions asked.

This year's Flower Mart has a goal that goes beyond the lemon sticks, the spring hats, the black-eyed Susans and the crabcakes. It wants its visitors to realize this is a flourishing, beckoning residential neighborhood stuffed with cultural and religious institutions.

Its organizers want its visitors to take a good, loving look at its church spires and schools, its merchants and hotels, its tall windows and cornices, even if they do need a coat of paint. After all, this is Baltimore, and there is always room for improvement. (A small request - while the newly planted flowers in Mount Vernon Place are a big help, what about a rigorous weeding for all four squares? They could use some work.)

But then, the fact that everything is not perfectly scrubbed and weeded here is part of the old town's charm.

I spent this past weekend in New York's Grammercy Park neighborhood. It too has a glorious 19th- century square bordered by landmark-quality buildings. This square, though, is surrounded by a tall, cast-iron fence and is locked at all times. This little greensward is weeded, watered and groomed to high standards.

And while I admired the resolve of the people who keep it this way, I also like the weedy democracy of our unfenced Mount Vernon. It's the place to be, come Wednesday - or any old morning when it's not just time to go to work.

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