Uncomfortably on the beaten path

Locust Point: In long-secluded neighborhood, housing prices are up and newcomers are moving in, while residents hope to preserve their sense of community.

July 09, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Surrounded by water on three sides, accessible from most of the city by a single road, Locust Point for years was a close-knit, working-class community where families toiled and lived in happy isolation from the rest of Baltimore.

As the site of Fort McHenry, a disembarkation point for thousands of immigrants, the home of two marine terminals and several storied industrial plants, the community boasted a rich history but was often overlooked or ignored by those who lived outside its mostly narrow streets of brick-and-Formstone rowhomes.

No more.

In the past couple of years, new workers and residents, many of whom once hardly knew Locust Point existed, have been drawn to this southern Baltimore community across the harbor from Fells Point and Canton.

Last month, owners took title to the last of 36 townhomes of Whetstone Point, a nearly block-square development in the heart of Locust Point, where the average home sold for $260,000. In less than five years, prices of older homes in the area have nearly doubled, to $117,000, with some recent sales topping $150,000. And one former factory is nearly fully leased as the Tide Point business center, even as the conversion of another old plant continues.

"We were a secret. Now we're not," said Joyce Bauerle, who is head of the Locust Point Community Association and has lived all of her 60 years in the neighborhood.

The rise in housing prices, in particular, is viewed with astonishment and anxiety by many longtime residents.

"The prices are amazing," Augie Goeller, 53, a dockworker and fourth-generation Locust Pointer, said late one recent afternoon at Oakes Brothers Tavern, a hangout for waterfront workers for half a century where a draft beer costs a buck. "You're talking some serious paper around here. What they're paying for a house now, you could have bought three blocks not long ago."

Many are apprehensively awaiting the results of the neighborhood's tri-annual property reassessments, due in December; others are worried about the long-term implications of Locust Point's growing popularity.

"It gives me concern about whether housing is going to be affordable in the future for families that have lived on the peninsula for generations," said state Del. Brian K. McHale, 47, a dockworker whose grandparents emigrated from Ireland to Locust Point at the turn of the century and who lives with his wife and two teen-age children in an abandoned grocery store he bought for $10,000 22 years ago and converted into a residence. "I don't know that my kids will ever be able to afford a house in this neighborhood."

C. William Struever, head of Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse - whose developments of Tide Point and Whetstone Point, and the conversion of the closed Coca-Cola plant into a new headquarters and factory for Phillips Foods, have put Locust Point on the public's radar screen - calls the matter of affordability for Locust Pointers' children a "fair question."

But the developer, who moved his company headquarters from downtown into the shuttered Procter & Gamble plant he transformed into Tide Point, suggested that the larger question was whether the neighborhood would retain its appeal without improvements.

"The big issue is will their kids want to live in Locust Point," he said. "Ten years ago, many didn't."

As one who has developed properties along the city's waterfront for the past quarter-century, Struever sees the rebirth of Locust Point as part of a broader story of the rejuvenation of the city in general and the harbor in particular. As such, he sees the Water Taxi stop at the public promenade in front of Tide Point - where residents come to walk, fish and read against the spectacular backdrop of the city's harbor - as symbolic of a growing link between Baltimore's harbor communities.

"We see the waterfront being one neighborhood, and the harbor being the front yard," Struever said.

That would be a sharp break from the past for Locust Point, which for decades was a world onto itself.

It was a place where you could get baptized and married at one of the three landmark neighborhood churches; hold a reception at the Knights of Columbus hall; get a job; have a beer at one of the 27 neighborhood taverns, now down to 15; do your shopping at one of several mom-and-pop grocery stores, most of which have long since closed; and be prepared for burial at the funeral home.

It also was a place that developed its own shorthand lingo: Domino Sugar is "The Sugar House;" the Procter & Gamble plant, "The Soap House." The United Church of Christ, next door to a 1904 immigration center, is "The German church;" the area of southern Baltimore just past Locust Point's western boundary is, simply, "up the hill."

The area was almost exclusively working class.

"No glamorous people lived there, no famous authors," said Oleg Panczenko, a software engineer from "up the hill" who is compiling a history of Locust Point.

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