Overlooking the Jones Falls Valley in North Baltimore, Brick Hill is a rare discovery: an urban neighborhood whose residents enjoy easy access to the city's conveniences but rarely suffer its grievances.
"It feels very remote and secluded up here, but we're right off a main artery and so close to downtown," said Peter Zahorecz, who has lived in Brick Hill since 1995. The 4-acre community backs up to Druid Hill Park and is near the Jones Falls Expressway and the Woodberry light rail station.
There are three narrow streets and fewer than 20 homes in Brick Hill - most of them brick 2- and 2 1/2 -story duplexes built circa 1870 for the men and women who worked in the Woodberry Manufacturing Co.'s Meadow Mill. Many of the buildings' interiors have been renovated and modernized, but they've all retained most of their original facades - distinguishing Brick Hill as one of the few intact mill-house communities in the country.
Brick Hill "was never a wealthy area, so there isn't the tattered elegance you'd find in a place like Mount Vernon," said author and resident Eden Unger Bowditch. "But there's a charm to this area that's really unique."
Many residents agree one of the most appealing things about life in Brick Hill is the community's lack of conspicuous change.
"When we first moved up here, everything in the area looked like it did 100 years earlier," said Agnes Malloy, who came from Bolton Hill with her husband in 1972. Her home is the oldest duplex in the neighborhood, and the only one made of stone.
"Some of the houses had no plumbing or heating, and there was still an outhouse in our back yard," she said. "The people who'd lived here were poor, so very few changes were ever made to the houses."
Thanks to Malloy, all the homes in Brick Hill - with the exception of one built on an open lot during World War II - were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.
"The surrounding area was being bombarded with billboards and traffic," she said. "No one up here had money or clout, so I figured the best way to protect our community was to get it on the register."
Despite a few subtle changes, the strategy has paid off: Brick Hill remains largely insulated from the sprawl and development at the bottom of the hill.
"It's amazing how few people, right in our ZIP code, know anything about what's up here," said Susan Rose, who moved to the area in 1985. "I personally like it that way."
There are no homes listed for sale in Brick Hill. Long & Foster real estate agent Craig Thomson pointed out that turnover in the area has always been low.
"People there are happy where they are," he said. "It's a peaceful neighborhood and relatively off the beaten path, which is hard to find in a city."
Homes in Brick Hill have historically eluded the real estate listings and been passed down to family members. Even today, Thomson said, homes are usually sold by word of mouth.
"When a house sells in Brick Hill it's because the owner knows someone who knows someone else who is interested in buying," he said.
Just one home in Brick Hill was sold through the multiple-list system last year, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc. The sale price was $115,000. Since 1991, eight homes in the neighborhood have been privately transferred, at an average price of $106,125.
Brick Hill residents have mixed feelings about the continuing reconstruction of nearby Clipper Mill - a former machine manufacturing plant and foundry left damaged and vacant by a fire in 1995.
Baltimore developer Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse Inc. bought the 17-acre property two years ago and is converting it into an upscale residential community and urban corporate campus - a project valued at about $52 million, according to development director Tim Pula.
The site plans include condominium units, loft apartments, townhouses and office space - all of which will incorporate or pay homage to the mill's original structures.
"I am thrilled Struever Bros. is coming to the neighborhood," said Rose, who hopes the development will improve security in the area. Other residents are similarly pleased that the Clipper Mill property will finally be refurbished, but have concerns about the prospect of increased congestion at the bottom of their hill.
"The area already seems overburdened with traffic and the light rail," said Zahorecz, adding that he's surprised the development does not include plans to ease potential crowding.
Light rail service here and at 12 other stations was suspended in January as the project to double-track the rail line shifted to its northern portion, from North Avenue to Timonium. Work is to be completed in late summer.
According to Pula, traffic surveys on the impact of the Clipper Mill project showed that the existing roads and infrastructure have the capacity to handle the development.
"I think what people need to remember is that the site is being developed across the street from the light rail," Pula said. "We think there will be significant usage of the transit system. After all, there are a lot of people who don't want to take their car everywhere; Clipper Mill is going to appeal to them."
One thing everyone does seem to agree on is that the redevelopment of Clipper Mill - where townhouses are expected to be priced at $300,000 to $350,000 - will likely raise both Brick Hill's profile and property values - a mixed blessing for a neighborhood that prides itself on being one of Baltimore's hidden gems.
ZIP code: 21211
Drive time to downtown: 10 minutes
Schools: Medfield Heights Elementary, Hampden Elementary, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary, KIPP Ujima Village Academy, Robert Poole Middle School
Shopping: Hampden, Rotunda Shopping Center, Greenspring Tower Shopping Center, Meadow Mill (The Potters Guild, Gomez Gallery, Axis Theater, Athletic Club)
Nearby attractions: Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore Zoo, Druid Hill Park and Wyman Park.
Homes on the market: 0
Average sale price: $115,000 *
* Based on one sale in 2004, as compiled by Metropolitan Regional Information Systems