Karen Rodriguez's parents grew up in Baltimore, but like so many members of their generation they left the city years ago, raising Karen and her two brothers in the suburbs.
Last summer, the 29-year-old proofreader re-established her family's urban roots. She and her husband, Ben, 32, moved from a rented townhouse in Bel Air in Harford County into a home they bought a half-block from the Senator Theatre in the Elsinore Village section of North Baltimore.
The Rodriguezes haven't found time to see a movie. But they've enjoyed having several carry-out restaurants within walking distance, taking Saturday morning trips to the Waverly Farmers' Market and making long-term plans for their 90-year-old three-bedroom frame house - which, given the $105,000 sales price, they consider a bargain as well as a dream.
"I plan on being here for at least 30 years," said Karen Rodriguez, who works in the corporate communications department of Constellation Energy Group. "If I never have to move again, I'll be happy."
For Baltimore, whose population declined by 84,860 in the past decade, a move like that of the Rodriguezes from suburbs to city may seem highly unusual.
In fact, it is more common than is generally believed.
During the 1990s, about a quarter-million people moved into Baltimore, according to migration data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Internal Revenue Service. And although the number that moved out was nearly 100,000 larger, there are signs that the gap may be closing slightly.
In 1999, the last year for which figures are available, 32,352 people left Baltimore, mostly for the city's suburbs, while 22,878 moved in. Compared with the previous year, those numbers represent a small but perhaps significant change: Nearly 500 more people moved into the city, and nearly 1,000 fewer moved out.
Planners and demographers say Baltimore and other cities - abandoned for decades by families with children concerned with the quality of urban public education - could benefit by the growth in households headed by single people and couples without children.
To capitalize on the trend, Mayor Martin O'Malley is creating a Council on City Living. It will evaluate existing programs to encourage people to move to the city and remain there, and possibly come up with new incentives.
Reasons for leaving the city have been well-chronicled: high crime, poorly performing schools, stagnating property values.
Those who have made the choice to move into the city have heard those complaints, frequently from friends and relatives, but many have their own positive experiences. And they are equally pragmatic, if no less passionate, about the basis of their decision: proximity to work, ready availability of arts and nightlife, the value of housing.
Eyeing his house, with its deck, parking pad and one-sixth acre of land, Ben Rodriguez, a teacher's aide at Kennedy Krieger High School, said: "For the money we paid for this, we'd be lucky to get a condo in the suburbs."
The migration data indicate that those moving out of the city are from larger households and that their per capita income is only about 5 percent greater than that of those moving in.
To city planners, that is further confirmation of a trend.
"We're tending to lose families with school-age children," said Charles C. Graves III, city planning director. "What we continue to see is empty-nesters and young professionals moving in."
That trend may no longer be as cataclysmic for the city as it was in previous decades.
In a recent paper for the Brookings Institution in Washington, Martha Farnsworth Riche notes that married couples without children and single people are now more common than traditional families, which account for about a fourth of the country's households and are projected to decline even further.
As of two years ago, however, all household types preferred the suburbs over cities, added Riche, a former director of the Census Bureau who heads a consulting firm.
At the same time, minority households, which make up an increasing proportion of city dwellers, tend to be younger and have more children than non-Hispanic white households and might have different housing needs, she said.
"You're swimming upstream if you're trying to bring in homeowners who raise children in the city," Riche said in an interview.
The key for cities, she said, is to determine what kind of housing those likely to live in cities want and encourage its development. "Cities have to be hard-eyed marketers," she said.
Baltimore is beginning to do just that.
The Council on City Living, to be announced soon, is to be chaired by James Piper III, executive vice president of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA. "We again have a mayor who understands PR and selling a city," Piper said.
The council will operate out of the offices of the Live Baltimore Marketing Center, a 3-year-old organization funded by city, foundation and corporate money to promote city living.
"We have to educate people that there's more to Baltimore than rowhouses and those 10 neighborhoods everybody keeps talking about," said Tracy Gosson, Live Baltimore's executive director.
Among programs to encourage home-buying, many appeal largely to people already living in Baltimore. Of 100 buyers who purchased homes through fairs last year in East and West Baltimore, at average prices of $84,000 and $98,000, respectively, just 30 percent came from outside the city.
Although a good deal of attention has been given to signs of strength in the city's housing market, particularly in neighborhoods around the waterfront and in North Baltimore, officials are also encouraged by a stronger-than-expected rental market, especially downtown, one of the few areas to experience an increase in population over the past decade.
"Someone who has a positive renting experience is more likely to buy later," Gosson said.
Bucking the trend
Charles and Maria Tildon didn't have to rent first to get a sense of the city. Charles, 38, nephew of city school board President J. Tyson Tildon, grew up in Ashburton in West Baltimore; Maria, 36, is a graduate of Baltimore Polytechnic High School.
Ten years ago, they married and settled in Columbia, a compromise of convenience for her work in Washington and his in Baltimore, and soon began raising their family there.
When their children were ready for school, they found themselves drawn to the private Bryn Mawr School in North Baltimore because of its all-day preschool program and strong academic programs. Daughter Drew, 7, is in the lower school there, while son Kyle, 4, is in the co-ed pre-primary school.
In March, the Tildons sold their townhouse in Columbia for $219,000 and bought a home in Mount Washington for $365,000.
"A lot of people move to Howard County for schools, and here we were, schlepping to Baltimore every day," Maria Tildon said. "That kind of drove our decision."
Their house has more space and more of a suburban feel than the one they had in Columbia.
"We have a playroom," said Drew. "We have enough room for beanbag chairs."
While the children now travel 10 minutes to school instead of 50, Maria, who still works in Washington as communications director for a nonprofit, has tacked 15 minutes each way onto her commute. Charles, a senior executive for United Way, drops the kids off at school on his way to work.
On the weekends, Maria makes up for the extra time she spends commuting by being closer to the children's music and dance lessons at the Peabody, visits with her family and trips to museums and restaurants. "We were joking the other day that we can go downtown and not debate about who has to drive," she said.
Still, the couple said they would not have made their move if they did not have a sense that the city was being rejuvenated. "It's a financial issue," Maria said. "This house is an investment."
It was bus trips to cultural events in the city sponsored by the Easton Academy for the Arts that gave Marty King her first positive glimpse of the city. "I was very impressed," she said.
Trying city life
Earlier this year, Marty, 63, and her husband, Sam, 81, sold their house in St. Michaels, where they had lived for six years after moving from Camden, Maine, for a warmer climate, and moved into a new corner rowhouse in a converted warehouse in Fells Point.
Although they sold their house on the Shore for more money ($375,000) than they paid for their pricey rowhouse ($339,500), Sam, a retired marketer with a love of boats, and Marty, who does some part-time desktop publishing from home, encountered raised eyebrows about their move.
"When we tell people we moved from the Eastern Shore to the city, they say, 'Why did you do that?'" Marty King said.
A key consideration was Sam's emphysema and osteoporosis.
"The idea of being one mile from Johns Hopkins was very appealing," Marty said. "We have friends our age on the Shore who have to come over [the Bay Bridge] two or three times a week for chemotherapy or treatments for various disorders."
"Life's long enough these days where you can try several different lifestyles," she added. "We lived the country life and thought it would be fun to live the city life."
For many younger professionals, the allure of Baltimore is city life - and jobs.
A year ago, Shannon Gill graduated from the M.B.A. program at Washington's Georgetown University and came to work as operations manager of the online version of Sylvan Learning Systems in Inner Harbor East.
Gill, who is 30 and single, also had job offers from companies in Atlanta, Washington and Cleveland, but said she was excited about the work Sylvan was doing.
She thought she wanted to live in Columbia but, when she got to the company, she realized most colleagues her age were living in Baltimore. Last fall, she paid $180,000 for a newly renovated two-bedroom rowhouse in Canton, replete with a rooftop deck with a view of the harbor.
"When I started talking to people about the social scene, I realized living in the city was more to my liking," said Gill, who added that five other M.B.A.'s recruited by the company at the same time she was are living in the city.
Carley Benham, a 1999 Towson University graduate who was commuting from her parents' home in Sykesville to her job as a lab technician at Hopkins in East Baltimore, wanted to live in Canton, too, but couldn't afford it. So, last fall, she did what she figured was the next best thing: she bought a rowhouse overlooking Patterson Park for $74,000.
"Once I was working down here, I realized it was nicer to not have to deal with the traffic every day," said Benham, 23.
Benham, who used $6,000 in city and employer housing incentives to pay most of her closing costs and who has a roommate who pays rent of about half her $790 monthly mortgage, said she considers the house "a good investment."
"I think it's going up in value," she said.
After growing up and going to school in the suburbs, Benham likes the area for its ethnic diversity and constant activity but notes that being close to the park gives her the best of two worlds. "In the middle of the park, you feel like you're not even in the city," she said.
Davis Maloy, 30, and his wife, Nicole, 28, moved to Baltimore last summer from Lansing, Mich., when his computer consulting company transferred him to work on a state contract.
After renting for several months in Bolton Hill to be near his job, the couple fell in love with the charm of the midtown neighborhood. Davis has since been moved from downtown to an office in Anne Arundel County, but Nicole found a job nearby in audience development with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Unable to afford a renovated house and unwilling to take on property in need of repairs, the couple settled in March on a $165,000 townhouse in Spicer's Run, a successful new development on the northern edge of Bolton Hill, in what was once a rundown subsidized housing project.
"Neither of us had ever lived in a big city before," Davis said. "We had heard such horror stories about the crime rate."
Although their car has been broken into once, he said: "It's much better than we thought."
Sense of community
Karen and Ben Rodriguez were also warned about crime in the city by friends and family, but say it hasn't been a problem.
"My father did not want me to move here," Karen said. "Even now, he'll say to us, 'You should sell this house and move out.'"
They have no intention of doing that. Indeed, they are enjoying a sense of solidness and stability they never found in booming Harford County.
"People go up and down the street and say 'Hi' to you," Ben said. "It was more transient in the county."