Lanes and passages to nowhere have interesting names

January 31, 1995|By JACQUES KELLY

A British friend once tried to explain the logic behind London's street names.

"Once we get ahold of a name, we use it a lot," he said and illustrated his point by ticking off Bedford Square, Court, Gardens, Passage, Row, Avenue and Way, all separate thoroughfares.

Hmmm, I smugly thought, we are more direct in Baltimore, but then remembered that we have a Bedford Square and Bedford Place in Guilford, and Bedford Road in Arundel Hills and Pikesville.

So I guess street names are bound to be confusing, no matter where you go. It helps to have been born there.

Discussions of street names always end with a list of my favorite ones.

One of them, summer or winter, is the single-block of Vineyard Lane, all that survives of an ancient Waverly thoroughfare between 30th Street and Greenmount Avenue.

I find I'm addicted to these tiny streets and alleys. They bend, they dip, they need new sidewalks or paving. They are probably municipal embarrassments, except to those of us who enjoy their curious ways.

Every Baltimore neighborhood of a certain age has them, those interconnecting lanes and passages that don't really lead anywhere.

But that's not the point. Take Vineyard Lane. Halfway along its distance, there is Catbird Lane. The corner of Vineyard and Catbird is an official Baltimore corner and has been so since the city swallowed up this part of the county in 1888.

Vineyard Lane used to be longer and enjoyed a more lofty status. Like a once proud and aristocratic family now living in church-assisted housing, Vineyard Lane lives on the essentials.

It once was a diagonal shortcut from St. Paul and 27th streets to the village of Waverly. Followers of the old International League Orioles might recall Vineyard as being the boundary on the third-base side of the wooden grandstands. Its name came from the old Vineyard estate, a glorious masonry mansion house that stood on what is now the playground of Barclay Elementary School, an institution frequently in the news because of its use of the Calvert School instructional methods.

Catbird Lane is down to about 50 feet of length and 6 feet of width. It's so narrow that only a baby carriage or wheelbarrow will fit. It once had a fancier use as the entrance to the old Huntingdon estate, home of the Patterson and Wilson families.

Other ancient neighborhoods are filled with these tiny passages. I'm forever thankful the city planners saw fit to preserve Welcome Alley in the Otterbein neighborhood in South Baltimore. So too that all-too-brief stretch of Little Montgomery Street, a street set on a diagonal. I've often thought it resembles an unfinished crossword puzzle. Just around the corner are Peach and Plum streets, tasty leftovers from the early 19th century.

One of Baltimore's great gifts to the street names is Little. Baltimore was once full of Little streets, that is, the junior offspring of larger streets of the same name but, according to city ordinances, were christened with Little with a capital L.

There was a Little Walsh Street next to the Lafayette Market in the Upton neighborhood. Behind the 500 block of Gay was a Little McElderry. City records say there were Little Alley, Little Burke, Little Market, Little Second and Little Stafford streets.

Oldtown had a Short Street and for the astronomers, Half Moon Street, just down the way from Comet Street. This is a neighborhood where High and Low streets crossed. When Holiday magazine did a photo spread on Baltimore many years ago, this corner was pictured.

City planners and other forces are always doing their best to clear away these tiny addresses. Consider the temperance people who petitioned the city to change the name of Vonderhorst Lane to Homestead Street during Prohibition.

It seems that some people didn't like living on a street named after Vonderhorst & Son, brewers. It made no difference that John Henry Vonderhorst had owned the Baltimore Orioles when the club was on top during the glory years of 1894, 1895 and 1896.

Cries of protest went up. Didn't Baltimore already have Wine and Cider alleys?

A compromise was made.

One block of Vonderhorst Lane, between Sinclair Lane and Belair Road, was changed to Homestead Street. But the block between Belair and Rose Street kept its name.

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