Visiting Pumphrey is like stumbling on a secret.
You don't expectto find collard greens growing so close to Baltimore smoke stacks. You don't expect, passing the gravel company on Belle Grove Avenue, that you'll round a curve into a simpler era.
Nearly everybody goes to church in Pumphrey, where four generations of families sit next to each other on the pews of the Community Baptist and St. John's United Methodist churches, both more than 100 years old. Most of an estimated 800 residents know each other, and everybody knows everybody's business, too.
Bordered by railroad trackson the north, not far from the Patapsco River and the Harbor Tunnel Thruway, Pumphrey consists of just 11 streets, winding up a big hill south of Belle Grove Avenue. A century has passed since the first home was built on the hill, but in this small, close-knit black neighborhood, loyalty has remained.
"We look out for each other," says Phil Marner, president of the community association. "People are kind ofdedicated. It's just real close. Real close."
Marner, 74, sits inthe run-down community center, hair grizzled, belly protruding, talking about the tiny neighborhood just inside Anne Arundel County.
Pumphrey is old, like Marner himself, he says. Many of the single-family homes show signs of age; many older people have died. And Pumphreyisn't rich. Except for one hair salon and some building contractors,the business district is practically nonexistent.
It's hard to talk the county into cleaning the streets, says Marner. The playground at the center is so shabby some mothers refuse to let their children play there for fear they'll come home, as has happened, with splinters in their hands from decrepit equipment.
But to the people who live here, Pumphrey is home, and the place resonates with warmth.
"Iwouldn't want to live anywhere else," says Martha Oliver, a hairdresser at Wilma's Hair Culture. "Just about everybody knows everybody. If someone moves in, usually you know them, they're a family member ofsomebody. There are a few new faces, but not much."
One resident who grew up in Pumphrey and moved back with her husband is Ramocille Johnson, 44. "I was raised right here. When I graduated from Morgan (State University), I came right straight back home", back to the church that was for her the core of it all.
For Robin Cornish, anotherhairdresser, Pumphrey remains special despite the rare outbursts of violence. Two years ago, county police say, drug dealers from nearby Cherry Hill began to infiltrate the community. Residents protested; police cracked down, and the dealers cleared out. Early last year, a young man was shot walking with friends to a dance at Pumphrey's community center. Just a few weeks ago, neighbors reported hearing shots outside the community center, although police had no report of an incident.
But Cornish says the trouble comes from outside the community, not from anybody who lives there. "It feels real safe to me," she says. "We just started locking our doors. I left my purse in my car last night by accident, and I just let it there all night long."
County police agree that Pumphrey is quiet. "We don't get many complaints out there," says Sergeant Starr Turczyk, of the northern district."When we ran the drug dealers out of there, that was really the lastproblem we had as a community problem.
Marner does his part by keeping a stern eye out for wrong-doers, by serving as president of theTaxpayers Improvement Association and by overlooking the Keaser Community Center.
The fact that most residents are homeowners helps maintain the area's stability, says the Rev. Clarence Davis, pastor of St. John's. "You don't have a lot of renters. Most people know all the residents, and if the old people don't know the children by name, they know the family out of which they come. And the young people knowthat."
It is these older people who are perhaps the best insurance against trouble, people like Arnetta Beverly, 79, a Pumphrey institution and a pillar of the Community Baptist Church.
To residents like Miss Beverly, Pumphrey hasn't changed much since the days when she went sleigh-riding down the big hill with the high, wide view. The hill used to be so steep that youngsters on sleds would go clear across Belle Grove Road. The hill has been cut down five times to make itless steep, she says.
She points out the wood-frame building thatwas the one-room schoolhouse where she went to school. She remembersthe platform dances in another old Pumphrey building, still standing, where city musicians came and people had a good time. "There were no fights," she says. "It was real peaceful."
Beverly has worked all her life, from her childhood as a farmer's daughter to her career in private home care, with night school along the way. Now retired, she keeps Pumphrey going with senior groups and her work with the Women's Progressive League, which in 1986 started a scholarship fund for community youth who go on to college.