In Curtis Bay, some avid pupils tackle the mysteries of history

Program aims to foster sense of community

March 06, 2001|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Many theories have been floated, but no one knows exactly where the Curtis Bay neighborhood got its name.

Just ask 11-year-old history buff Raymond Wiley, who recently painted screens, helped sew a quilt depicting local scenery and went on fact-finding missions in a pilot program to learn more about his southern Baltimore community.

"The name could have come from the bay and a sea captain named Curtis," Raymond says. "No one knows for sure."

Raymond and 20 of his classmates at Curtis Bay Elementary dug at their neighborhood's roots for six weeks in a new after-school program led by the Maryland Historical Society.

The History Explorers Community Adventure After School Program is the first of its kind in Baltimore. The historical society started a second one last week in the Oliver community in North Baltimore.

The work of the Curtis Bay pupils culminated last week with an exhibit of maps, brick rubbings, pictures, screen paintings and quilts in the school's auditorium.

The program has shown them what lies beyond their community's blemished facade of abandoned homes, drug activity and prostitution.

"At first, I thought it was a bad community because of what I saw," said Brooke Cully, a 9-year-old explorer. "Now I feel better about living here."

The fourth- to sixth-graders found the site of the former Curtis Bay Elementary School on Fairhaven Avenue and Church Street. No building remains, but hopscotch panels still imprint the concrete.

"I played on it!" said an excited Jessica Leister, 11, pointing to a picture of the hopscotch outline on display. "It's cool because you didn't know how they played back then."

The children also learned about their school, which was built in 1964 on West Bay Avenue. Temporary wartime, barracks-type houses were torn down to make room for the school and nearby Bay Brook Park.

The pupils learned that Ceddox Street used to be called Cedar Street and Fairhaven Avenue used to be Fairview.

"I think Fairhaven was called Fairview because it had a good view of the bridge," Raymond explained.

That and Curtis Bay's name are part of the mystery of the neighborhood.

"I wish we could give a definitive answer," said Sharon Leggin, history explorer coordinator for the Maryland Historical Society.

She said the land was named "Curtis' Neck" in 1663, but the origin of the name is not known.

The class learned that Curtis Bay began as a small farming community in the late 1870s on 112 acres along Curtis Creek. Farmers shipped their crops and produce across the bay into what was then known as Baltimore Town.

The neighborhood was annexed to Baltimore in 1918, along with the neighboring southern peninsula communities of Brooklyn, Fairfield, Wagner's Point and Hawkins Point.

During World War II and the economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s, the neighborhood flourished.

But urban blight has tainted the area, now dotted with abandoned homes and prostitutes.

With the help of police and residents, things are improving, say community members. They know that the children hold the key to the future.

"We are empowering kids to take a look at the environment so they can take charge of it, so they don't feel like a victim," said Schroeder Cherry, deputy director of education for the Maryland Historical Society. "They can understand it and help it change."

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