Old waterfront area looks for new life


Isolated city community fondly remembered as a `family of families'

April 21, 2002|By Nancy Jones-Bonbrest | Nancy Jones-Bonbrest,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Like many older city neighborhoods, Curtis Bay boasts families who have lived there for generations.

Originally, many residents moved to Curtis Bay because of jobs in the industries that dotted the waterfront. People stayed because the area offers affordable housing and a comfortable a way of life.

"I've been here for almost 53 years," said Rita Lamke, who was born and raised in Curtis Bay. "My parents still lived here when I got married, and the houses were affordable. So we decided to buy it as a steppingstone. Then we decided never to step out."

Lamke and her husband, James, raised three boys in Curtis Bay, and, they said, it was easy to keep track of them when they were growing up.

"Curtis Bay was more than a community; it was a big family of families," she said. "Everyone knew everyone, and everyone watched out for everyone else. If my child was six blocks away and doing something he shouldn't have, I heard about it. It was just a very nice place to live."

Curtis Bay is the most southeastern section of the city and borders Anne Arundel County. Curtis Bay and adjoining Brooklyn, another Baltimore neighborhood, are cut off from the city by the Patapsco River.

In recent years, residents of the highly industrial area have fought to keep crime, drugs and prostitution off their streets. Vacant housing and poor maintenance of rental housing also are concerns.

"I'm afraid to sit out on my steps at night or walk to the corner store," said Lamke. "When I was growing up, people swept their sidewalks and we never had to lock the door. Maybe things are no longer like that in any neighborhood, but I sure would like it to be a little better than what it is now."

But Curtis Bay still has good people and homeowners who care about the community, she said.

Community leaders teamed up with Brooklyn to form the Brooklyn and Curtis Bay Coalition to help stabilize and improve the two neighborhoods.

The group has received a $250,000 grant from the state's Community Legacy Grant Program and a $20,000 grant from the state's Office of Crime Control and Prevention.

The coalition will sponsor a housing festival Saturday that will include open houses, homeownership workshops and a community celebration.

Buses will take people on a tour of the two neighborhoods and will visit open houses at properties that are for sale. Prospective homebuyers will also learn how they can own a home with a $1,000 down payment.

Audrey Ridge, an agent with the BWI office of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, said the area offers just about any type of housing, old and new.

"There's a nice mix of homes," she said. "The area attracts mostly people who have lived in the area, have family there or maybe rented in the area and want to stay there. It's centrally located and convenient to work areas and the bus line."

Houses run the gamut, from those dating to the 1800s to townhouses and single-family houses built a few years ago.

Prices in Curtis Bay vary greatly as well.

The average list price of a home in Curtis Bay is in the low $30,000s, according to the Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc. But home prices fluctuate considerably in this neighborhood, with sales as low as $8,000 and as high as $122,000 during the past 12 months of recorded sales.

The housing fair will tell people about the home loan programs available, said Ridge, who will participate in the event.

The housing fair is just one way the two neighborhoods are trying to get residents involved in improving their communities.

Linda Bardo, president of the Community of Curtis Bay Association, knows that turning a neighborhood around takes time.

"Over the years you could see the downturn, and we are trying to turn that around," she said. "I'm not one of the ones that is going to give up. There are a lot of good things happening now, and we are trying to get people to be more positive. It didn't become this way overnight. We know it's going to take time."

The community installed a "Welcome to Curtis Bay" sign recently at the entrance of the neighborhood. Barrels with flowers have been placed throughout. "We're trying to spruce it up down here," said Bardo.

The name Curtis Bay can be traced to 1663. On June 29 of that year, a 200-acre parcel north of Arundel Cove, on which part of the U.S. Coast Guard Yard is now located, was patented to Paul Kinsey. He named the estate Curtis' Neck, according to A History of Brooklyn-Curtis Bay, a 1976 publication of the Brooklyn-Curtis Bay Historical Committee.

The Curtis Bay community was an expansion of Brooklyn. Originally part of Anne Arundel County, the two communities were annexed to Baltimore in 1918. During the 1950s and 1960s, the neighborhood continued to grow as waterfront industries thrived.

Karen Butler, who grew up in Curtis Bay and raised her children there, said it always has been a good community where people stick together.

"We live on a dead-end street," said Butler. "So in the winter the snowplows don't come down here. We all get out as neighbors and clean the streets."

David Schuyler returned to Curtis Bay to take care of his mother after living in New England for 30 years. Schuyler, who grew up in the area, said it has changed but that he still enjoys the conveniences.

"I have neighbors that have been here for 50 years. They bought the house when it was brand new in 1943, and they have been living here ever since. So that's something to say about it. I'm comfortable here and I do see things getting better."

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