In the mid-1980s, Michael Lamason moved the Black Cherry Puppet Theater to two abandoned buildings he snatched up for $12,000 across the street from Hollins Market. His traveling performance company brought him into a growing artists' community. It's in a neighborhood that's not a geographical place but a state of mind: Sowebo.
"I've never lived in Sowebo, but it's my home," said Lamason, who lives a mile away in Seton Hill.
Coined in the mid-1980s amid a busy bar and restaurant scene in a neighborhood swelling with artists' residences and studios, Sowebo, or SoWeBo, stands for Southwest Baltimore. It includes the better-known Hollins Market and Union Square neighborhoods. Bounded by Pratt, Schroeder and Baltimore streets and Fulton Avenue, the area is a dozen blocks west of downtown.
Drawn by attractive architecture and quick access to downtown and interstates, many residents chose it after finding they couldn't afford to live in Federal Hill, Bolton Hill or Canton. Despite its magnificent townhouses, picturesque square and convenient location, however, the neighborhood has been through some ups and downs. It continues to deal with crime, struggling schools and dilapidated neighborhoods nearby.
The Italianate residences along Union Square "are just unbelievable," said Tracy Gosson, executive director of Live Baltimore, an independent nonprofit organization that promotes living in the city. "They're like Bolton Hill houses at a third of the price."
Artists started moving to the area in 1981, spreading the word to their friends in Baltimore, Annapolis and Washington, said Bill Adler, president of Sowebo Arts Inc., a nonprofit group in the neighborhood.
Today, more than 30 artists live in the area.
"This is an amazing artists' community," said Francis Rahl, manager of systems assessments for Northrop Grumman Corp. in Linthicum. He exhibits his photography as a hobby and lives across the street from Union Square.
Hollins Market and Union Square make up a National Register Historic District of densely spaced rowhouses that includes Federal, Greek Revival and Italianate architecture.
Most of Union Square is built on the former estate of Thorowgood Smith, Baltimore's second mayor (1804-1808). Neighborhood lore holds that Smith's nephew suggested naming Union Square in 1846 to celebrate the victories of American forces during the Mexican-American War.
Anchoring the other end of the area is Hollins Market, the city's oldest home to food merchants, built in 1838. The market is named for the Hollins family, which owned land in West Baltimore. Along the neighborhood's northern border on Baltimore Street, barbershops, discount stores, liquor shops and storefront churches stand amid a spate of vacant storefronts.
Union Square is host to summer movie screenings, and it contains an ornate fountain and Greek Revival pavilion. It's also home to an annual Christmas cookie house tour. But the area has also suffered setbacks.
The longtime Hollins Street home of the square's most famous resident, H.L. Mencken, the writer known as the Sage of Baltimore, closed in 1997 when the City Life Museums folded. An organization called Friends of the H.L. Mencken House is leading efforts to reopen it.
The neighborhood applied for designation as an arts and entertainment district, but it lost out three years ago to Station North Arts and Entertainment District, near Charles Street and North Avenue.
The SoWeBohemian Arts Festival, a one-day art show and concert that will enter its 20th year in May, drew up to 20,000 people a decade ago. Attendance fell by 75 percent by the late 1990s, but topped 10,000 last year, said Adler, the Sowebo Arts president.
Schools and crime top the list of neighborhood concerns, but things are looking up, some say. Rahl, who bought his house on South Stricker Street for $60,000 around 1979, said, "We had to chase people off our front steps." Thanks to improved rapport with police, he said, "I don't really consider crime to be an issue."
Area schools are working hard to get better, but there are public schools in the neighborhood that are "not adequate," said Erika Brockman, who bought a house in 2000 two doors down from Rahl. The mother of two preschoolers, Brockman is leading the team that won city approval in November to open the Southwest Baltimore Charter School. The group hopes to use a former YMCA building at Carey and West Baltimore streets.
Despite the problems, residents and others say the area has its rewards.
"It's still ideal to live here," said oil painter Scotty Stevenson, who bought a house on Booth Street 12 years ago for $7,500. He likes living among artists and being close to downtown.
"I can just get on a bus and go wherever I want," Stevenson said.
New restaurants and shops, such as Umri Siki New Day Gallery, offering African art, leave some in the area anticipating an upswing.
The University of Maryland's biotech project broke ground west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard last spring. To the south in Washington Village, developer Metroventures USA Inc. is building Camden Crossing, a 150-unit housing development on 9 acres.
Camden Crossing is already driving up housing prices just a few blocks away, Metroventures Vice President Suzanne Graham said. Statistics show that rowhouses in Washington Village sold for an average of more than $200,000 last year.
Sowebo Arts plans to buy 1111 Hollins St. from a glassblower who's moving to Hampden and turn it into a gallery and community center, Adler said. The group then will try to acquire the vacant top floor of Hollins Market for the same use, he said.
Next door at the Black Cherry Puppet Theater, Lamason plans a 50-seat theater to give his traveling puppet company a fixed space for performances. He bought two vacant lots next door, which he turned into a performance garden.
Real estate prices are rising as longtime owners sell to homesteaders and investors. The average sales price is $103,590, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., a Rockville-based real estate company that tracks sales.
Bought 2 houses
All six houses now on the market are on Hollins Street, priced from $71,000 to $399,000 for two to five bedrooms, said Daniel Motz, a Coldwell Banker Realtor who has a neighborhood property listed. Said Motz, "The prices there are a fraction of what you could buy in Bolton Hill."
Dan Van Allen, a furniture restorer and self-taught painter, bought his first house in the neighborhood on South Arlington Street for $10,000 in 1980. In 1985, he bought the house next door for $11,000 and later combined the two. He plans to stay put.
"I can't afford to move anywhere else that would be a better neighborhood," Van Allen said, though he takes issue with the name Sowebo.
"I don't call it Sowebo," Van Allen said. "It's been called Hollins Market for 150 years. It doesn't need a new name."
ZIP code: 21223
Drive time to downtown: less than 5 minutes
Schools: Steuart Hill Academic Academy, Southwest Baltimore Charter School (opening fall 2005)
Shopping: W. Baltimore St., Hollins Market and adjacent block of Hollins St.
Homes on market: 6
Average list price: $105,258 *
Average sale price: $103,590 *
Average days on market: 125 *
List price as a percentage of sale price: 102 *
* Based on 33 homes sold during past 12 months as compiled by Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc.