Where they want to stay `undiscovered'

Neighborhood profile: Bare Hills

Community founded by son of freed slave has no uniform `look'

November 21, 1999|By Frederick Rasmussen | Frederick Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Bare Hills is one of those Falls Road neighborhoods that motorists, if not careful, can enter and exit within two blinks of an eye, and its residents seem perfectly happy with that.

Bare Hills, which dates to the 1830s and has one of Baltimore County's oldest African-American enclaves, is roughly defined on the west by Clarkview Road, on the north and east by Robert E. Lee Park and on the south by Hollins Lane.

"This is a neighborhood that resists being trendy, and we wish to remain undiscovered," said Sarah Fenno Lord, a writer and neighborhood activist who has lived in the area since 1972.

"We deliberately wanted to live on this side of Lake Roland, because [this] area is full of characters. We're on the wrong side of the light-rail tracks here, and proud of it," Lord said with a laugh.

Lord, considered something of a zealot when it comes Bare Hills, has a reputation of fighting to protect the area's unique qualities and history from developers and others who value its land and proximity to Baltimore and Towson.

"There is no uniform `look' to the houses or the people who live here," Lord said. "But I defy you to find a stronger community -- anywhere. We feel a lot of respect and affection for each other here. Since the 1830s, Bare Hills has been where black folks have thrived, away from the inequities of the larger society around them, and white folks could hug all the trees they wanted."

Bare Hills owes its founding to the Rev. Aquila Scott, the son of a freed slave who saved his owner's life.

Scott, a blacksmith and wheelwright, moved to Bare Hills in the 1820s from St. Mary's County. He began buying property on the Falls Road Turnpike, today known as Falls Road. He settled there with his wife and 12 children.

He later established St. John's Church on Bellona Avenue in Ruxton in 1833. Scott, whose descendants still live in Bare Hills, died in his pulpit in 1858, and is buried in a small grave off Falls Road. His marble tombstone bears the inscription: "In memory of Revd. Aquila Scott, who passed away while in the church below, to join the church above."

In 1902, John Gardman, an in-law of the Scott family and for whom Gardman Avenue was named, purchased a large parcel in Bare Hills.

He farmed the land until 1925, when he had it surveyed for building lots which he sold only to African-Americans who were unable to buy land in or near the city.

"The land is made up of hills, valleys and streams. There were many dogwood and pine trees which furnished a haven for wildlife such as deer, rabbits, squirrels, owls and other birds," wrote resident Mary Turner in a monograph several years ago.

"From the high hills looking to- ward the city, one could see far in the distance. Often Mr. Gardman's friends would climb the hills just to look at the view in the distance and remark, `What a pleasant view.'

"Consequently, Mr. Gardman heard the remark so often he decided to name the area Pleasant View," she wrote.

Gladys Reed, a resident since the 1950s and head of the Pleasant View Association, said, "When our house on Park Avenue was torn down for urban renewal in the 1950s, they were going to send us to Cherry Hill, and my husband said, `No way.' "

"So we came here. I grew up in a little town in Pennsylvania, and it reminded me of it," she said.

Reed's sister, Emma Bright, who retired as principal of the city's Hilton Elementary School, purchased a piece of property across the street from her sister in 1959 and later built a home there. The former Ashburton resident has lived full-time in Bare Hills' Pleasant View section since the early 1990s.

"It's quiet and peaceful, and that's what I like about life here," Bright said.

Cookouts recalled

"It really is a very harmonious community," said Bright, recalling lazy summer afternoons, cookouts with friends and family reunions held there over the years.

What concerns the two sisters and others, however, is proposed development and how it will affect life in the tiny community, where there is little turnover in houses.

"We have to keep our eyes and ears open as to what developers plan to do," said Bright.

What concerns residents is a proposed life-care community and what will happen to a large tract owned by Potts and Callahan Inc., a contracting company.

"Of course we're concerned about businesses creeping up Falls Road. This is a closely knit community, and we're worried about industry and other expansion and its effect on our property values," Reed said.

Bare Hills takes its name from the layers of serpentine rock that run underneath it. Such natural resources as chromite, first found there in 1810, copper mining and quarrying presaged an industrial boom. Until 1850, Bare Hills held a worldwide monopoly in chromite, the chief ore of chromium.

Other changes came in 1831, when the whistles and chugging locomotives of the Baltimore & Susquehanna Railroad and later the Northern Central Railroad could be heard through the trees lining the Jones Falls Valley.

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