A hopeful wind brought with it the name of Charles Village


I'D LIKE TO know where the last 35 years disappeared to. I can't even remember the day I learned that someone down on 26th Street had successfully affixed the name Charles Village on the blocks where we lived.

That someone, of course, was Grace Darin, a woman who'd had enough of Baltimoreans' negativism about their city. She decided to do something about it. She used her brains, a typewriter and the occasional donation of postage stamps from her friends. I don't know how she did it, but her name for a grid of rowhouses in North Baltimore stuck.

One of the hopeful winds that occasionally sweeps through Baltimore was stirring that winter of 1967. I think it had something to do with the city's up-and-down fortunes. I liked the fact the Morris Mechanic Theatre had just opened with Betty Grable in Hello, Dolly! There was a feeling that, despite the worsening Vietnam War, sleepy old Baltimore might be ready to awaken to a new day.

Grace coined the name Charles Village to give people a sense they were living in a neighborhood with real neighbors, local institutions and its own set of delightful quirks. She did this by putting out a newspaper that skipped all the dull junk and read like the social notes in a small-town weekly.

I'll never forget the sight of Aunt Cora and my mother snatching it up as the postman pushed copies of The Charles Villager through the brass mail slot.

I knew this was serious reading when my mother took the Villager to her favorite reading chair, put on her glasses and started reading it with the intensity of a bank examiner. Then, a day or so later, she compared her readings with Aunt Cora. They generally agreed that ours was a great old neighborhood, grossly misunderstood by persons who lived outside its boundaries. How Baltimore can you get?

I also think of the day, also in the 1960s, when Aunt Cora and I were looking out a third-floor window and taking in the view across Guilford Avenue. She mused what a wonderful neighborhood this had been to her since the day she had moved there in 1915.

It was now 1960-something, and Baltimore's population had peaked. It was clear that the city was in a state of transition; we all worried what that would mean. Would our streets wind up bulldozed, like Linden Avenue in Bolton Hill or long blocks of North Avenue?

As I walk around the streets of Charles Village today, I often think these are the same streets of that winter of 1967. Except for some outrageous exterior paint jobs - my father often quips that Charles Villagers often fall prey to paint dealers trying to unload vile outdoor shades no one else wants to buy - Charles Village is not all that different.

The club sandwiches named after Loyola and Goucher are still on the menu at the Charles Village Pub, which did change its name from the old Blue Jay. Our local grocery store, named Eddie's, is still very much run by Jerry Gordon, whose father, Eddie, was running the place in 1967. And, most blessedly of all, there are still enough affordable, non-Martha Stewartized apartments for all sorts of people to live here.

And so too our MTA buses - they were ever late and off schedule in 1967, and they are the same today (though I think the drivers are more courteous in 2002).

So, after three and a half decades living in the place called Charles Village, I think back to the old Charles Villagers and recall it's not the paint jobs but the people who make the place.

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