View from above appeals to many urban residents

Homes: For some city dwellers, residing atop the area's bustling shops is the highlight of downtown living.

November 03, 2003|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

When Glenn Moomau throws open his living room windows, Fells Point rushes in.

The distinct aroma of fresh bread, the brassy clanging of kitchens, and one of Moomau's favorites, the shrill whistle of a tugboat -- all are daily reminders that just one floor below is the neighborhood's bustling heart.

Moomau, a writer and musician, lives above a vintage store called Flashbacks and a popcorn shop, with a back-window view of the kitchen at Bertha's restaurant. To enter his apartment, he must walk through a narrow alley to the back of the building and climb steep stairs. He has no doorbell -- drunks used to ring it in the middle of the night.

"I think I probably have a pretty strange life," said Moomau, 44, as a plump tabby cat circled his feet. "I'm used to it, but I don't know anyone else who lives like this."

Moomau is among a small but diverse population of city dwellers who occupy the often-cramped spaces above Baltimore's commercial establishments: artists, college students, empty-nesters, business owners and, in some cases, those yearning for some simpler time when shopping meant walking to the market downstairs.

According to historians, upstairs apartments once represented domestic living downtown.

"Almost everyone in Baltimore lived above a store until about the 1840s," said Charles Duff, city planner and developer for the nonprofit firm Jubilee Baltimore. "Then businesses got too big. People had too much stuff and made more money, so they moved out to residential neighborhoods."

And some, like the De Franco family, return.

"If you need limes for the bar, you just go next door and ask for them," said Guido De Franco, who lives with his wife, Tina, and two children above Caesar's Den, their restaurant in Little Italy. "You can get anything around here."

Three years ago, the De Franco family moved from their home in Hunt Valley, and their acres of gardens and trees, to the three-bedroom apartment above Caesar's, which they have owned for 25 years.

"I've always liked the city," said De Franco, who was born and raised in Naples. "Forget about the yard, the flowers. Here, it's like home -- like a little bit of heaven."

De Franco said his family thrives on life in the heart of Little Italy. His son, Tony, 29, works at Caesar's in the evenings, waiting to be accepted to law school. His 17-year-old daughter, Francesca, often entertains friends, many of them intrigued by the novelty of hanging out above a restaurant.

"Being here has made our lives so much easier," said Tina De Franco, who grew up around the corner from Caesar's when many more families lived and worked in the neighborhood. Today, the De Francos are one of just a few of these families left.

For Joseph Zannino, owner of the Joseph N. Zannino Jr. Funeral Home on South Conkling Street in Highlandtown, raising a family of eight children in the three-bedroom apartment above his business was a challenge for him and his wife, Maria.

"We did it out of necessity," said Zannino, who used to convert the living room to a bedroom at night for some of his children to sleep in. "We've been a family-oriented business for 45 years. People come ring our doorbell and expect us to be here."

All of the Zanninos' children have grown up and moved out, leaving the apartment to him and his wife. But their youngest child, Salvatore, a 29-year-old actor, said he recalls vividly what it was like to grow up above his parents' funeral home.

"We used to have to be really, really quiet because there were visitations going on downstairs," he said.

The rules are a bit more relaxed at the home of Deborah Mazzoleni and Barry Rumsey, owners of the Bicycle restaurant in South Baltimore. For three years, the couple has lived with their two children, ages 3 and 9, in an apartment directly above their restaurant.

"Do I want to live across from a pool hall and a Chinese restaurant? Not exactly," said Mazzoleni. "But this is the only way we can work and still be good parents who have time to sit down with our kids to dinner."

On a recent evening, while their children bounded excitedly around the apartment -- a cozy space insulated from the noise from below -- Mazzoleni and Rumsey cooked a meal of sausages and zucchini seasoned with Old Bay. Downstairs, the first table was being seated by their staff.

"When I'm finished dinner, I'll put on a jacket and go downstairs to work," said Rumsey, who grew up in England, where he says many restaurant owners live upstairs.

"It's the European way," said Mazzoleni, adding that she enjoys walking or biking everywhere and the cast of characters she meets on the street.

"I like the diversity of the people around here," she said. "I know the woman who gets drunk at the bar and walks down our street everyday. My children know her, too. This neighborhood is changing, but it still hasn't lost its color."

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