When the locals gather at the Chameleon Cafe on Harford Road, it usually is for a hearty meal at a good price. Here, in comfortable surroundings, amid bright wall hangings and mismatched tables and chairs, no one is really a stranger. Food, and the comings and goings of Lauraville, dominate the conversation.
Across the street from the cafe stands a bold Victorian home that shows how the combination of businesses and houses works in this neighborhood just 10 to 15 minutes northeast of the Inner Harbor.
Lauraville is a compact neighborhood with a hilly terrain and irregular street patterns.
It is located east of Herring Run, north of Argonne Drive, south of Echodale Avenue and follows the west side of Harford Road.
In Colonial times, Harford Road linked Bel Air with the burgeoning town. It wasn't until the decade before the Civil War, however, that Lauraville grew to village-like proportions. A gristmill that had been built along Herring Run a few decades earlier was then joined by a cotton mill. Churches and a schoolhouse followed.
Soon after the war, Lauraville became an official village with its own post office. John Henry Keane, a local property and lumberyard owner, suggested the town be named after his daughter, Laura.
Lauraville prospered in the last decades of the 19th century. Tradesmen of all varieties worked along Harford Road while area farms provided produce, fresh meat and dairy products.
Electric passenger railway service contributed to the rapid development of Lauraville as a suburb for downtown Baltimore.
Annexed in 1918
A portion of the current homes in Lauraville had been built by the time city officials annexed the town in 1918.
A 1996 neighborhood analysis completed by Morgan State University shows that more than three-quarters of the housing stock was built before 1950. And 98 percent of the homes were built no later than 1970.
The homes span a variety of styles - from shingled Victorians to brick bungalows. Homes range from 1,200 square feet to as large as 4,500 square feet, said Jeff Sattler, executive director of the Neighborhoods of Greater Lauraville Inc., which represents six enclaves in the area.
Andrew Colletta, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Baltimore, refers to Lauraville as "the classic 1920s streetcar suburb."
"With houses in all styles, ranging in price from $75,000 to $125,000, it is a great opportunity for first-time buyers," he said.
Three welcome signs greet Lauraville visitors - one at the north end at Harford Road, one at the south and one in between.
Back at the Chameleon Cafe, Lindy Hall, president of the Lauraville Improvement Association, is enjoying lunch with a few friends.
A 10-year resident, Hall said Lauraville homeowners mainly are middle-class, blue- and white-collar professionals, as well as factory workers, musicians and artisans.
"I bought my house for $75,000 six years ago and recently refinanced it for $99,000," she said. "I'll retire here.
"People always say the taxes are higher than what you would pay in the county. But what you pay in mortgage more than makes up for it."
Multidenominational parishes are found throughout the neighborhood.
They include Shepherd Community Baptist Church, St. Francis Catholic Church, Antioch and Ray of Hope churches, and St. Dominic Catholic Church, whose parochial school is attended by many Lauraville children.
A view of downtown is offered from Garrett Heights Elementary off Rueckert Avenue. Catalpha Road boasts Victorians with winding porches and rounded second-floor turrets. Cozy bungalows adorn Plymouth and Hermosa roads.
Some residents often walk along the water in nearby Herring Run Park, but they were told to avoid it last week as city officials worked to contain an overflow of raw sewage into the waterway.
An objective look
Kevin Cleary has lived in Lauraville since 1992. He praises the area while also assessing its flaws.
"I like that I can get anywhere in 15 minutes," he said.
Cleary notes that the large houses require a great deal of maintenance and "it's common to have a house that's 100 years old." He appreciates Lauraville's architectural variety and the concern the neighbors have for one another.
Much of the community involvement is offered through the Lauraville Improvement Association, which convenes monthly on the second Tuesday. Members can be involved in almost 20 committees that address such issues as animal complaints, beautification and cleanup, citizens patrols, public safety and zoning.
Then, there is "The Fair."
Every September, the association sponsors a daylong fete in the park-like Columbus Triangle at the neighborhood's southern entrance.
It features music, food, flea markets and the volunteer efforts of many local businesses and churches. All proceeds benefit the association and the neighborhood.
A true appreciation of the village-like feel of Lauraville is best gained when driving along the tree-lined streets.
The majority of neighborhood services, businesses and cafes are situated along Harford Road, while residences lie to its west.
Driving along narrow side streets, Hall said that newer structures, such as the Harborview Nursing Home, were built to blend with the neighborhood's historic look.
Cleary said his hope is that Lauraville's 2001 designation as a city Historic District and the subsequent tax credits for improvements that come with it will attract additional neighbors.
Commute to downtown:10 minutes
Public schools: Garrett Heights Elementary, Hamilton Middle, Lake Clifton High; DuBois High; Lewis High
Shopping: Downtown, Towson, White Marsh Mall
Homes on the market: seven
Average list price:$103,980*
Average sale price:$103,164*
Average days on market:106*
Sales price as a percentage of the listing:99.2 percent ** Based on 20 sales during the past 12 months as compiled by Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc.