Croquet lifts community Spirit: Barre Circle residents hold their second annual croquet tournament to let people know about their oasis in the city.

July 20, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

On a green lawn in Southwest Baltimore yesterday, Susan Mullenex, in bonnet and sun dress, sipped champagne. Sissy Bryant handed out marmalade and egg salad sandwiches.

On the croquet field of Barre Circle's second annual tournament, Sam Cushman and Joseph Brown, both decked out in the Bermuda shorts of English gentlemen, dueled shot for shot, with Brown sealing the victory on the final two wickets.

"Sure, it seems strange to have croquet, a croquet tournament in this neighborhood," said Harris Levy, who lives there and publishes a local newsletter. "But it helps make us unique. Certainly we're not competing with croquet tournaments around the city."

In fact, the game of English and French royalty has become the latest way of trying to raise the profile of the six-square-block area known as Barre Circle. Residents there are eager to add new families to their integrated mix of professionals, many of them lawyers, city workers or doctors with ties to the nearby University of Maryland Medical Center.

Yesterday's tournament served as a quiet, genteel contrast to Barre Circle's neighbors: hardscrabble Pigtown to the west, and the noisy, fast-moving Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to the east.

"When people think of the neighborhood now," said Bryant, a special education teacher and 18-year resident who organized the event, "I want them to think of croquet."

Barre Circle, a national historic community, has loomed larger in Baltimore's past than its present. The neighborhood was a 19th-century stalwart, its houses home to the immigrants who worked in rail yards and slaughterhouses.

The houses were once slated to be destroyed to make room for Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in the 1970s, but city officials changed their mind and only took some of the space. Homesteaders snapped up the remaining 115 or so homes, and spent thousands of dollars fixing them up.

Over the past 20 years, the neighborhood has achieved a substantial degree of stability. The vast majority of the homes remain well-kept, and the covenants will soon have to be renewed. But there is considerable anxiety among residents who complain that car break-ins are a hassle, that city schools make it hard to raise children there, that real estate values, despite a recent uptick, are stagnating.

Neighbors here have not hesitated to attack these problems. Three years ago, residents sponsored a public tour of houses that were for sale. And Barre Circle is the site of some of the most thorough community cleanups anywhere in the city. In recent years, the local elementary school has adopted a new curriculum, and test scores are rising fast.

"This is like an oasis in the city," said Tamara Sowell, 61, who moved here 10 years ago and says she is never leaving. "It's surrounded by poverty and some drugs, but we've stuck together and we're OK."

Bryant was thinking about ways to strengthen that togetherness as she drove through Little Italy a few years back and saw a court for boccie, Italian lawn bowling. The idea hit her like a mallet to the skull.

"If Little Italy could be famous for boccie, we could be famous for croquet," she said.

She studied the sport, secured copies of the official rules for nine-wicket croquet, even learned about the croquet team at St. John's College in Annapolis. The neighborhood association bought croquet equipment. Last year's inaugural tournament, on the green space west of Barre Street and south of McHenry Street that Bryant calls the South Lawn, drew 20 teams and was a neighborhood hit.

Yesterday's attendance suffered from the hot weather, organizers said, but the tournament attracted a diverse crowd of about 40, with a handful of residents from Pigtown and the nearby Roundhouse Square townhouse development joining Barre Circle residents.

A few men had planned to wear tuxedos, but most stuck to white-collared shirts and Bermuda shorts. One woman wore her wedding dress. Old and new residents met. Carolyn Brown, the third generation of her family to own a local cafe, waxed about her days growing up in Ridgely's Delight, a neighborhood east of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Chris Ward, a research associate at the university who moved in two weeks ago with his wife, a veterinarian, talked about how he'd like to buy a house and stay.

The croquet games were friendly -- so friendly that it was unclear late yesterday afternoon whether the tournament would crown a winner by nightfall.

But among the dozen or so youngsters who participated, competition was heated. James Parham, 13, and his friend Eric Wright, also 13, discovered that croquet has little in common with basketball or football, their usual Sunday past times, with one exception.

Plenty of time for trash-talking.

"I'm better than you," Eric told James.

"You got no hope of beating me," replied James. "In croquet, I rule this neighborhood."

Pub Date: 7/20/98

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