Karen French lives the ultimate city life: She walks eight minutes to work, owns a single-family home across from a park and lives a few blocks away from cultural institutions.
And she is steps away from downtown in relatively unknown Seton Hill.
"We're right in the heart of it," said French, 41, a painting restorer at the Walters Art Museum.
On the downside, there's no back yard at the house she shares with her two small children and husband, a puppeteer who runs a theater in Southwest Baltimore. Instead, they step across the street, tricycles in tow, to St. Mary's Park.
"It's one of the unknown gems of the city," French said.
Bounded by Pennsylvania Avenue and Orchard, Eutaw, Franklin and McCulloh streets, Seton Hill was built mostly before 1850. It features some of Baltimore's earliest gable-roofed rowhouses. And it is designated as a Baltimore and National Register Historic District.
The French Roman Catholic religious order of Sulpicians arrived in Baltimore in 1791 and started the nation's first Catholic seminary in the area that is now Seton Hill. The school flourished, expanding to include the neo-Gothic Seminary Chapel that stands today. The five-story seminary building on Paca Street was torn down in 1975, and the site became St. Mary's Park.
The neighborhood takes its name from Elizabeth Ann Seton, who arrived in Baltimore in 1808, settling next door to the chapel at 600 Paca St. The destitute widow and mother of five came from New York to open the first boarding school for Roman Catholic girls. Seton went on to establish the Sisters of Charity and become the first American-born saint.
Seton Hill became an important part of Baltimore's African-American history when the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the world's first order of black nuns, was founded there in 1829, according to a spokesman for Cardinal William H. Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore. It also is the site of the Orchard Street Church, one of Baltimore's earliest African-American churches and now home to the Greater Baltimore Urban League.
The neighborhood is about a 10-minute walk from the Walters Art Museum, the Hippodrome Theatre, the main Enoch Pratt Free Library and Lexington Market.
A few blocks farther away are the state office complex on Eutaw Street, the University of Maryland, Baltimore and Maryland General Hospital. Churches in the neighborhood include Canaan Baptist, Metropolitan Community Church and Disciples Bible Baptist Church. Limited shopping is available in the neighborhood.
"It's a neat little enclave" said Jerry Silverman, a real estate agent with Re/Max Sails in College Park who lives in Baltimore and is representing a seller who has listed a home for sale in Seton Hill. It's particularly attractive to people who want to walk to Mount Vernon "but can't afford to pay $300,000" to live there, he said.
Most Seton Hill homes have two or three bedrooms and sell for $90,000 or less, according to data from Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., the Rockville listing service used by real estate agents and brokers.
Of the three homes that sold during the past year, two sold in a week or less. A developer plans to build eight rowhouses on a vacant lot on the west side of St. Mary Street. The homes would overlook the park, with prices starting at $220,000.
The neighborhood is 76 percent black and 16 percent white, according to Census Bureau data. The number of Asians has more than quadrupled since 1990, to 135. People 18 to 24 years old make up the second-fastest-growing age group in the neighborhood, behind those ages 45 to 64.
"The people around here are very friendly as a rule," said Ann McKenzie, a 40-year resident.
When some neighbors complained about crime in the area last year, city officials lowered a high wall on the north end of the park to address concerns.
From Sept. 12 to Dec. 11, the neighborhood experienced 11 car break-ins, two aggravated assaults, six burglaries, six robberies and six stolen vehicles, according to data from the city's Web site.
In early December, a brick was thrown through the George Street window of 36-year resident Hilbert D. Stanley. But the retired high school principal said he is not discouraged about living in the neighborhood.
"I'm still going to stay here," Stanley said.
Cozy rowhouses and narrow streets lend a European charm to the area. Concerns about public schools prompt many parents to move out or choose private schools. And some neighborhood residents acknowledge that it is difficult for young children to play in the area because many homes lack back yards.
"Most houses don't have a back yard bigger than a living room rug," said McKenzie, the neighborhood association president.
Some residents like not having yard upkeep and prefer to jog or play in St. Mary's Park, which has no playground. About a half-dozen neighbors have combined their individual back yards into an area they all share, said Kimberley A. Flowers, Baltimore's parks and recreation director, who lives in Seton Hill.
Streets in Seton Hill are a mix of thoroughfares such as Paca Street, with fast northbound traffic from Interstate 295 and tiny gems such as Jasper Street, which is one lane wide with no parking.
To improve traffic, the city plans several changes, including changing Orchard Street from a cul-de-sac to a through street. If approved, construction will start after July 1, Deputy Planning Director Chris Ryer said.
Affordable housing and proximity to traffic arteries makes the neighborhood a real find, said Tom Layden, a real estate developer who owns property in Seton Hill.
"It's location," he said "You can get anywhere in the city fast."