Rowhouse living can open the door to frustration -- but also friendship ALL IN A ROW

June 05, 1994|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff Writer

If you've lived in a rowhouse, surely you have a special rowhouse memory:

Of conversing in code through the bedroom wall with your best friend next door.

Of a neighbor's daily practice of singing big-band tunes, loudly. (You often hummed along.)

Of the impromptu block party that migrated from marble steps to someone's patio, and lasted blissfully into the night.

Of cleaving a parking space from snow and defending it with your dining room set.

They are memories of a shoe-horned lifestyle that thrusts intimacy upon strangers and makes priceless commodities of privacy, air, light and space.

Baltimore is not the only metropolis where rowhouse living predominates, but because of its local abundance, "the rowhouse is Baltimore's special insignia," writes Natalie Shivers in her 1981 history, "Those Old Placid Rows: The Aesthetic and Development of the Baltimore Rowhouse." And in this city and its outskirts, in Formstone rows and county town homes, from one end-of-the-row to the other, people struggle daily with the challenge of living cheek by jowl.

Built as a unit, rowhouses are hard to separate one from the other. That's a plus in winter, when each abode helps keep its neighbor warm. But where does one rowhouse roof end and the other begin? Should you ask permission before building a fence? What if your walnut tree is dropping nuts all over the neighbor's deck? If you mow your lawn, but the neighbor doesn't, what's the point? How long does one tolerate living between two people who watch their televisions at top volume?

In the process of wrestling with these dilemmas, rowhouse society has engendered its own, ever-evolving etiquette. "If you want to live in a rowhouse, you have to act like a rowhouse person, not like someone who lives in the middle of the forest," as one rowhouse veteran puts it.

Old-fashioned courtesies, such as leaving couples alone to court on front porches, have gone the way of trolleys, but good neighbors still water one another's gardens, guard against mischief, take turns watching neighborhood broods.

"We all try to live by the Golden Rule. I think that's the secret," says Helen Warehime of Highlandtown, who breaks into a crinkly smile and offers a slice of coffeecake when a visitor arrives at her doorstep.

Eagerly, she talks about the web of friendship and concern that enfolds the 600 block of S. Streeper Street. Just the other day, when she was short four potatoes, she simply hollered three backyards over to Shirley Janiak, who was hanging the wash. Later, Mrs. Warehime, 73, delivered homemade chicken and dumplings (with potatoes, of course) to elderly neighbors on her block.

A widow, Mrs. Warehime raised four children on Streeper Street and has lived there almost all her life. Thirteen houses on the 40-home block have passed from at least one generation to another, she says. "That's what's keeping the neighborhood up. It's not strangers, it's people who had roots here all their lives."

Streeper Street residents are vigilant. "If a stranger is hanging around, neighbors call each other and tell everyone to be on the lookout," Mrs. Warehime says. "If my lights are on later than usual, I will get a phone call to see if I'm OK."

In summer, the neighbors grill hot dogs and hamburgers or get up a crab feast while the kids play dodge ball in the street. When there is a death on the block, "We send flowers with a neighbor ribbon," Mrs. Warehime says. It's a tradition she inherited from previous residents some 30 years ago.

Though new, a suburban rowhouse development can cultivate its own neighborhood traditions. Vivian Worthington lives in such a community in Perry Hall. She has a photograph snapped during a blizzard last winter. In it, "Everybody is shoveling as a group . . . others would cart the snow to the other side of the street. It just was wonderful. I just love living here," Mrs. Worthington says.

In good weather, Mrs. Worthington and her neighbors spontaneously gather at their mailboxes on Friday evenings for happy hour while the children frolic nearby. "We all have such a connection. We're all first-time homeowners, we're all on our first marriage," Mrs. Worthington says. "We're all experiencing life's difficulties and decisions at the same time."

As generations of sprouting families have done before them, Mrs. Worthington and her neighbors will probably leave their starter homes eventually -- with reluctance. "None of us wants to move, and if we do move, we want to take us all with us," she says.

A united rowhouse block can also be a fortress against urban decay. By coalescing into an extended family, the residents of Tina Brown's block in the city community of Upton have resisted the surrounding drug scourge.

"Everyone tries to keep the block clean," Ms. Brown says. "And believe it or not, everyone comes home and has their own parking space in front of the house. I find that so amazing."

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