History, funkiness meet here

February 13, 1994|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Sun Staff Writer

Community leaders in Mount Washington don't like to have their streets improved.

"We don't want really nice roads in our neighborhood," says Lu Pierson, president of the Mount Washington Improvement Association.

Nice roads, she says, bring too many suburban commuters winding their way to the city through the picturesque streets of this historic Northwest Baltimore neighborhood.

"And whenever [the city] wants to improve a road, they want to take trees down," Ms. Pierson says.

In Mount Washington, the residents take their trees seriously. They would rather save an old tree than fill a pothole.

The trees, like the Victorian homes, are part of the community's history that dates back to 1810 when wealthy families began building summer homes to escape the heat and filth of downtown Baltimore.

Today in Mount Washington, even the community association that Ms. Pierson now heads is historic -- it was founded more than 100 years ago.

The community may have the most eclectic collection of architectural designs of any neighborhood in the city -- 1920s bungalows, stately antebellum homes, 1950s ranchers and Victorian mansions with wrap-around porches that look like they belong overlooking the ocean.

About 125 historic homes are part of a small portion of the community that is an official historic preservation district designated by the city's Commission on Historic and Architectural Preservation, says Sara Fishman, who heads the improvement association's own architecture review committee. Any exterior changes to homes in the district need approval from both Ms. Fishman's committee and the city's commission.

For the larger community, the improvement association's aim is to keep the neighborhood from changing. "Our primary zoning interest is preventing infill development" of new houses on vacant land, says Ms. Pierson, a paralegal.

Preservation trust formed

The community established a preservation trust four years ago, allowing property owners to donate land to prevent future owners from developing it. No one, however, has donated land to the trust yet.

Ms. Pierson's husband, Michel Pierson, grew up in Mount Washington in a house his family built in 1956, then moved back to the same house with his own family 10 years ago. The Piersons' children attended the same public school as Mr. Pierson -- Mount Washington Elementary.

The school -- known citywide as one of Baltimore's best public elementary schools -- has a close relationship with the community.

Located in the heart of the residential area on Sulgrave Avenue, the school exterior is decorated with colorful murals painted by students and their parents.

The active Parent Teachers Organization -- known for its successful fund-raisers -- finances a part-time physical education instructor so the students take gym class at least once a week. Previously they had gym only twice a month, said Ms. Pierson.

The public elementary school is one reason why some families move to Mount Washington.

Mr. Pierson, a lawyer, said his family moved back to Mount Washington because they had a "commitment to live in the city and a commitment to use the public schools."

The school has a good reputation because of "the dedication of the staff that's there, the eagerness of the students to learn and the active volunteer parents. The parents, students and the staff work as a unit," says Lynn Rubin, who has lived in Mount Washington and taught at the elementary school for more than 20 years.

Mount Washington residents include doctors, lawyers, artists and writers.

The median household income for Mount Washington is $58,497, according to the 1990 census -- more than twice the citywide average.

Jan Frederick, a real estate agent for Coldwell Banker Grempler Realty, says Mount Washington always impresses homebuyers who are new to Baltimore.

"Mount Washington has always been a favorite for its charm. And it's convenient to downtown," Ms. Frederick says.

Although the 1990 census figures show 17 percent of the residents are African-American, Ms. Pierson says, "it's racially integrated, but not nearly as integrated as most of us would like."

Crime in the community is focused more on thefts of cars and copper downspouts than person-to-person crimes.

tTC "We don't consider ourselves as having a crime problem. We have a stolen car problem," Ms. Pierson says.

But in the summer of 1991, after some robberies in the community, the improvement association started the Mount Washington Citizens Patrol with volunteers driving throughout the community at unannounced times to let criminals know they're being watched.

The patrol, says its chairwoman Norma Cohen, has grown to 150 volunteers who work on a rotating schedule.

They carry a portable phone to call police and "look for any kind of suspicious behavior or activity," she says.

Thriving business strip

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