Homestead area retains its diversity


Neighborly bonds strong among 'urban pioneers'

November 16, 2003|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

Judy Aleksalza keeps a framed photograph of a dilapidated brick townhouse on a wall near her kitchen. The rear wall is entirely missing, beams are exposed to the elements, and debris litters the front.

The photo could be of a bombed house in postwar Dresden. It is, in fact, a picture of her Barre Circle home -- taken in 1977 after she bought it through the city's famous $1 program and started an elaborate renovation process.

Aleksalza is one of the dozen or so homesteaders in Barre Circle who still live in the houses they bought from the city during the mid- to late 1970s. Since then, her house -- and her neighborhood -- have been transformed.

Aleksalza spent $63,000 and three years on the restoration of the narrow, three-story red-brick townhouse, which was built between 1858 and 1863. It matches all the other homes on the street -- also built during the mid-19th century and also redone in the '70s.

Barre Circle -- pronounced "Berry Circle" -- is a tiny, close-knit downtown community in Southwest Baltimore. It consists of 120 homes and is on the upper-scale and eastern end of a larger area known as Pigtown, which the city is trying to remarket as Washington Village. Situated in the shadow of M&T Bank Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards, some residents grumble about parking on game days. But most enjoy the neighborhood's proximity to downtown.

Housing prices in the neighborhood have been rising along with the rest of Baltimore. The house next to Aleksalza's is in the process of being purchased for $122,000. During the past year, 11 properties sold at an average price of just less than $108,000.

Hidden behind the sameness of the red-brick facades, the diverse racial and professional mixture of residents in Barre Circle makes it unusual -- and a draw.

"I had been given all the areas to look at that people say to look at downtown -- Federal Hill, Canton, Fells Point," said Bill Erlick, a transportation planner who moved to Baltimore from Los Angeles two years ago.

Erlick was looking for the convenience of downtown living. But after renting for a few months in South Baltimore, he turned his nose up at the established downtown neighborhoods and chose Barre Circle.

"Other places I was looking were overly gentrified," he said. "They were filling in with the same type of people and losing any type of diversity they had."

The prices also were a deal, he said. At $103,000, he was able to buy "twice the house I could afford in South Baltimore for half the money."

It was only an accident of history that Erlick even had the option to buy his 19th-century rowhouse. City leaders once planned to demolish the entire area in the mid-'70s to make room for an expressway.

When local opposition caused city officials to scale back those plans, Baltimore found itself with roughly 500 vacant homes. Lacking the federal funding to knock down the houses and build "modern" developments, the city made a deal with hopeful homeowners.

The program -- then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer's baby -- allowed any U.S. citizen or legal alien older than age 18 to buy a vacant house for $1. To get the title, residents were required to renovate the home and live in it for two years. The city provided low-interest loans -- 7 percent was considered low-interest then -- to help with the renovations.

There were about 100 homesteaders, and they developed a strong bond. They were the lucky ones. So many people bid on the houses that the city needed to use a lottery system to determine who could buy. The lottery was random, meaning those chosen to form this new neighborhood were from various backgrounds, regardless of race, sex, income or profession.

"We were urban pioneers," Aleksalza recalled. "It was like an extremely difficult and long childbirth. Family and friends gutted the place, then contractors disappeared and it rained for five months straight."

After going to court twice to get rid of bad contractors and nearly declaring personal bankruptcy, she turned the brick shell into a perfect Williamsburg-like restoration. It was featured in Baltimore Magazine's "rowhouse chic" section years ago.

The tight bonds that started with homesteading are still apparent in the neighborhood.

"There is a lot of outreach, a lot of things we do to bring people together," said Susan dosReis, president of the Barre Circle Community Association. "We have monthly cleanups. People come out, wipe off the leaves, pick up the trash, clean the sidewalks and talk to their neighbors."

But it is not all work.

The community sponsors an annual Barre Circle croquet match. For those who don't care to hit a ball through a wicket, there also is a Barre Circle Sewing Circle and the Barre Circle Ladies Dining Club.

At any one of them, one might hear discussions of the history -- the original history -- of the neighborhood.

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