A mechanical engineer with a passion for the environment, Crystal Heshmat figured she had better put her money where her mouth was when she and fiance Justin Bishop were deciding where to buy a house.
The pair grew up in the suburbs of Albany, N.Y., and had looked at country and suburban listings in the Baltimore area before settling on a Victorian rowhouse in the Abell neighborhood in the heart of the city.
"People talk about smart growth and say they're anti-sprawl, and it seemed like the best way not to encourage sprawl was to move to a more dense area," said Heshmat, 30.
Like many people in the Abell neighborhood, just east of the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus, Heshmat and Bishop, 28, also were drawn to the area's diversity, the walking-distance local shops and restaurants, acceptance of varying lifestyles and community involvement.
They bought their five-bedroom, 2 1/2 -bath home in the 3000 block of Guilford Ave. in April 2001 for $165,000. Aside from repairing the roof and installing an automatic garage door, the couple have done little to the house, which has hardwood floors with inlay trim, a carved wood banister, original chandeliers and ornate moldings.
"I consider this area very strong, a real neighborhood where people look out for each other," said Heshmat, who commutes by bus and train to her job in Landover.
After the February snowstorm that virtually shut down the city, Heshmat walked to Eddie's Market on St. Paul Street and was disappointed to find that the store was out of bread.
"When I came back, I was complaining about it and a neighbor said 'Oh, I have a bread maker, I'll make some for you.' It was so nice."
LiveBaltimore.com notes that the neighborhood, which was developed in the first two decades of the 20th century, is named for the Abell family - former owners of The Sun - which had an estate nearby.
Most of the 550 or so homes in the neighborhood have second-story bay windows and wood-columned porches, many of which have been painted in funky, bright colors for entry in the annual Painted Ladies of Charles Village contest.
"It's kind of refreshing to find a neighborhood where everyone's so open and friendly in an urban area," said John Spurrier, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage and a Charles Village resident. "A lot of people think the city is cold and that people do not really know their next-door neighbors."
The average selling price for homes in Abell during the past 12 months was a little more than $127,000. The few homes that reach the market there don't last long: Houses sold in an average of 19 days in the past 12 months.
Mary Washington, president of the Abell Improvement Association, said it's the neighborhood's mix that makes the area distinctive.
"It's diverse, and that's not just a cliche; it's really part of life in Abell," said Washington, the city's director of housing statistics.
"You have families who have been there 50 years, people who have been there a year, people with Ph.D.s and people with high school diplomas - hourly, salaried, people who sometimes work and some who don't work at all. ...
"You can't always tell who's who or what, and that's kind of neat. We have same-sex couples, same-sex couples raising children, single parents and heterosexuals raising kids."
Abell is part of the Charles Village Community Benefits District, meaning residents pay a tax of about $100 a year, depending on the value of their homes, for additional city services such as garbage pickup and security.
But Abell has its own aura, Washington said.
"The streets are smaller, closer together, and neighbors walk across the street to talk to one another," Washington said. "We have an active porch life and sidewalk life."
One of the main perks of the area, residents say, is the Waverly Farmer's Market, a block from Abell, where every Saturday is like an impromptu block party as neighbors shop for produce and flowers while catching up on the latest goings-on in the area.
Residents also put on an annual street fair and a spring cookout, and organize Christmas caroling.
Aside from coordinating events, the Abell Improvement Association addresses issues such as crime and sanitation, and monitors the development that surrounds the area, Washington said.
Of particular concern are a new Giant Food store in Waverly, the planned YMCA at the former site of Memorial Stadium and plans by developers Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse to rejuvenate the 3200 block of St. Paul St. with new shops and housing.
Washington said she doesn't want the neighborhood to become another Canton or Fells Point.
"We are excited that things are happening and that people are investing in the city," she said, "but we want our community to remain affordable and accessible, and to not have a lot of increase in traffic."