It's the coolest of the neighborhoods

Jacques Kelly

July 15, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

Mount Washington residents like to tell the story about some would-be car thieves who tried to make a heist on one of the neighborhood's curving, tree-lined streets.

The auto rustlers failed. They couldn't find their way out of Mount Washington. They kept going in circles.

Mount Washington, the city neighborhood that's coolest in the summer and where roads freeze first in the winter, began as a July and August vacation retreat. Dozens of sprawling frame houses, trimmed with porches and widow's walks, date from the second half of the 19th century. Situated to the north of Pimlico Race Course, the neighborhood scales the sides of the Jones Falls and Western Run valleys.

Ever true to its name, it's a hilly district seemingly laid out by zealous Sierra Club members. Take a good map along if you're ever invited to a party there.

"You should have seen what it was like when the cable television company arrived here," says Linda "Lou" Pierson, a Chilham Road resident who is the president of the Mount Washington Improvement Association. "They had maps and plats, but they weren't any good. There are streets listed on maps that don't exist in reality. In one place, there's a sidewalk but no street."

Residents use words like informal and eclectic to describe Mount Washington, home to lawyers, Johns Hopkins staffers, writers, artists and people who want big old rambling houses but still want a city address.

In recent years, it has become the place where the so-called urban pioneers of the 1970s and 1980s, who renovated homes in Federal Hill and Charles Village, moved once they started having babies. Yet Mount Washington insists it's not a conformist suburb. People there love to suggest, "We're not an uptight place."

"Very few people actually care about their lawns. That's part of the charm of the neighborhood. Neighbors are never bold enough to tell you to take care of your lawn," Mrs. Pierson says.

For the first time since 1959, the neighborhood now has commuter train service via light rail. On one recent evening, business people toting briefcases trooped off the white-and-blue cars. Some drove off in Volvos. A few rode bicycles home.

Light rail neatly serves the classic Mount Washington village, a mix-and-match collection of small shops with a prodigious concentration of hair design studios. Nobody seems to know why this little hamlet is Baltimore's coif capital.

The Mount Washington Tavern, one of the neighborhood's best-known institutions, gets a boost from baseball. "When the Orioles win, we seem to get more of a punch of business," says owner Ted Bauer.

With several of Baltimore's favorite lacrosse fields nearby, the spot is a favorite postgame watering hole. One wall has a large mural of the old Pimlico Club House, a magnificent structure that burned in 1966. Aging private school alums fill the bar; the restaurant gets the family trade.

Religion plays an important role in the community.

"There's a huge number of people who belong to Beth Am Synagogue," says Hillary Jacobs, speaking of the temple in the 2500 block of Eutaw Place, which, while not in the neighborhood, draws many Mount Washington families.

Mrs. Jacobs also is president of the Mount Washington Elementary School's Parent-Teacher Organization, a vigorous and vocal collection of public school advocates.

In Catholic circles, when a priest is appointed to the charming gray stone Shrine of the Sacred Heart, it's said he's been sent off to "Sleepy Hollow," a reference to the neighborhood's quiet.

And this time of the year, it's an article of faith that you meet your neighbors at the Mount Washington Swimming Club, the large neighborhood pool. The pool is free and open to all community residents on selected days and hours. Otherwise, families join and pay an annual fee that admits them seven days a week.

But, as with so many things in Mount Washington, you have to know where the pool is. It's tucked away in a stand of mature oaks off Northern Parkway and Greenspring Avenue.

Bumper stickers in the pool's parking lot say much about local politics and taste: "I love ballet," "Ben Cardin for Congress," "Make art not war," and "Earth Day."

"The pool is a wonderful gathering place where the whole neighborhood congregates," says resident Susan Sullam. "At the end of the summer, when the pool shuts down, people say, 'We'll see you next year.' "

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