Federal Hill's yuppies edge southward

December 29, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Vera Papa looks north from behind her Formstone-covered rowhouse in the 1600 block of Belt St. and sees the invaders coming her way. Yuppies. From Federal Hill.

Moving steadily south from Cross Street, the newcomers are stripping South Baltimore's rowhouses of Papa's beloved Formstone in favor of exposed red brick fronts. They are adding wood decks to their roofs, allowing them to enjoy harbor views privately (and, some old-timers point out, to look down on neighbors). And they are replacing small back yards with parking spaces for their cars.

"The March of the Brass Lamps" is what a former city planner calls it, because of the newcomers' habit of hanging brass lamps outside their front doors.

But the southern movement also has sparked a backlash in old South Baltimore neighborhoods -- west of Charles Street, south of Fort Avenue near Riverside Park, even in Locust Point -- where many residents have lived in the same house for decades.

Papa, who grew up in South Baltimore, worries that some day soon she may no longer know her neighbors.

Thirty-two years ago, she bought her house for $6,700. Now, her mailbox is full of come-ons from Realtors asking if she is interested in selling.

"They're breaking down the old South Baltimore traditions," says Papa, 64, retired from her job as a security guard at Seagram's. "It hurts me, in a way."

Advance to the south

What hurts most is this: like an advancing army, the yuppies buy farther and farther south from Cross Street -- Federal Hill's traditional southern boundary -- and then begin to call old-line blocks, such as 1400 Riverside Ave., Federal Hill. Even a few longtime residents have adopted the practice, at least in dealings with loan officers or prospective employers.

"Why are people suddenly afraid to live in South Baltimore?" asks Helen N. Eisel, who has lived in the same rowhouse in the 1500 block of Henry St. for 40 years.

As she talks, Stephen Strohecker, the manager of the Century 21 office on Light Street, approaches.

"We just cracked the 1500 block of Henry," he says proudly. And he has a question for Eisel: "When," he asks, tapping her Formstone, "are you going to pull that off?"

"The next person," she replies, gently shaking her head. "You'll have to wait for the next person who owns the house after me to do it."

Real estate agents such as Strohecker have, in no small part, contributed to Federal Hill's expansion. The city maps and the National Register of Historic Places say Federal Hill stops at Cross Street. But the Realtor maintains that Federal Hill now cuts as far east as Lawrence Street in Locust Point, and as far south as Fort Avenue, South Baltimore's heart and soul.

"And it's going to keep spreading," says Strohecker, 40, who is best known for buying and renovating more than a dozen homes on Harvey Street in recent years. "Deeper and deeper into Riverside Park and the Locust Point neighborhood. I think Riverside Park is primed for the next big move."

The change is jarring for many older South Baltimore residents, used to thinking of the entire peninsula as working class, even poor.

But over the past 20 years, Federal Hill has become a hot spot for young urban professionals, drawn by a safe city neighborhood within walking distance and the entertainments of the Inner Harbor.

Traditionally, many Federal Hill residents stayed a few years and moved to the suburbs when their children reached school age. South Baltimore, the larger working-class neighborhood to the south, was far less transient.

Slowly, the balance has shifted, and South Baltimore has lost some of its old-style character. A review of the last three years' worth of real estate sales in the South Baltimore peninsula makes the trend clear: While it used to be that most sales in the peninsula occurred in Federal Hill, the vast majority of the action is taking place farther south, in the once stable blocks of South Baltimore.

Over the past three years, 382 homes have been sold in the South Baltimore neighborhood, compared with 193 in Federal Hill and about 60 in Locust Point. Of the South Baltimore sales, nearly a third of the homes were sold for more than $90,000.

Conflicting views

Most South Baltimore residents are of two minds about this. In one breath, they acknowledge that their new affluent neighbors are good for the city's tax base. New residents are better than vacant houses, they say, and many of the young people who have moved in are nice.

In the next breath, residents recite a litany of complaints, large and small.

Jack Williams, president of the Riverside Action Group, says the newcomers don't come out for meetings.

Small merchants say the yuppies prefer the strip-mall style Southside Marketplace to their wares.

Colleen Retz, a cashier at a South Baltimore grocery store, complains that the newer, yuppie customers are unusually rude.

And many residents have remarked on the "Federal Hill" street banners, which hang on city light poles as far south as Ostend Street.

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