Greektown has Old World charm Where folks can stroll to all that's important

Neighborhood Profile

June 30, 1996|By Rosalia Scalia | Rosalia Scalia,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

East of Highlandtown, beyond the Conrail overpass and in the shadow of Hopkins Bayview Medical Center is Southeast Highlandtown. Unofficially dubbed "Greektown," the small community is characterized by all-brick streets of varying widths, some so narrow that drivers can easily touch the doors of cars parked along them.

The community has so much of an Old World village feel, it was the backdrop for parts of the film "Avalon." That aura is due in part to the area's plethora of Greek-owned specialty shops, restaurants and businesses that enable its Greek residents to shop, attend church and take care of business without having to speak English.

Although 65 percent of the community is of Greek origin, the area is a veritable League of Nations with "just about every nationality represented," said Walter Hudson, a lifelong resident and president of the community's improvement association.

Warm, summer evenings find neighborhood men gathering on the corners to catch up on news. "Men have always congregated on corners, especially in the days before air conditioners and TV sets kept everyone inside," Hudson said.

Many residents, especially those who live in the houses in which they grew up, continue to refer to homes and stores by the names of their previous owners, many long-dead. It is not unusual to hear phrases such as "Buddy's mother's house" and "Mrs. Fisher's house" used as location markers.

"If a stranger were to listen to our conversations, he or she wouldn't know where we were talking about," said Erma Papadimitriou, who lives with her husband, Nicholas, and her two sons in the same house that her parents bought in 1932. "It almost as if we are speaking our own language," she added with a laugh.

As in Old World villages, everyone knows everyone else. Dinners, desserts and news are still traded over backyard fences, and residents walk to their neighbors' houses through clean, paved alleyways that connect the streets and houses like a secret lifeline.

The neighborhood's small back yards tend to reflect homeowners' personalities. Some, like Hudson's, have landscaped gardens. Others boast a plush growth of grape arbors and fig trees. Some back yards are paved and contain plastic swimming pools, while others are grassy with paved walkways. Some feature small decks or porches.

Papadimitriou remembers many afternoons when, as a child, she and her friends played "Romeo and Juliet" on a Victorian-style back porch that her German-born next-door neighbor had built onto his house. In some yards, towels, sheets, shirts and other clothing flap on clotheslines.

If the back yards reflect individual personalities, the facades of the rowhomes tend to present a similar face. But scrutiny reveals differences from one block to another.

For instance, some of the all-brick exterior rowhouses feature stained-glass transom windows and large, second-floor bay windows. Some houses have Formstone facades and wooden cornices. Most have the highly polished marble steps that are a hallmark of Southeast Baltimore, while some houses have double pavements.

According to Hudson, the houses in the area were built in three stages. While they average 14 feet wide, homes built just after World War I tend to be the narrowest, measuring 12 feet, while the widest, built after the second World War, measure 15 feet. Some of the earlier homes have front porches.

According to Tom Keelan, a Realtor with Diversified Realty, the houses in the neighborhood typically have two or three bedrooms and many have club basements. "The average sale price for a home in Greektown is about $55,000," Keelan said. But a house in good condition can sell for as much as $74,990.

In the past 12 months, 14 homes have sold after being on the market an average of 45 days.

"There was one house that was only on the market for 11 days, but it was a great house with a renovated kitchen on a good street," Keelan said. There now are 21 houses for sale in the neighborhood.

Originally known as "The Hill," the community was settled after World War I by Irish, Finnish, German, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian and some Greek immigrants, who were drawn to the area for its proximity to jobs at Crown Cork and Seal, Cross and Blackwell, Bethlehem Steel and other nearby companies.

"Blue-collar workers settled here because it was close to their livelihoods and close to stores, bus lines, churches and schools," Hudson said.

"It was a place where people banded together and helped each other," said Helen Johns, a lifelong resident who lives in the house her parents purchased in 1938. The community is still very much like that, she said, citing that as the reason she stayed put.

The community was also once known as "15th Street."

"When I was a kid, cross streets were numbered and Oldham Street was 15th Street," Hudson said. "Even though the street name changed, the name stuck, which is why the improvement association is called the 15th Street Improvement Association."

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