One-time `Gold Coast' remains a treasure

Ashburton: African-American community in West Baltimore cherishes `historic power.'

March 23, 2004|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN STAFF

The Iluyomades - Taiwo, a Washington architect, and Leslie, a computer software engineer - could afford to live in almost any freshly built subdivision with all the lavish home amenities they want.

They chose Ashburton, a resilient West Baltimore neighborhood that four decades ago became a chosen address for many influential black people but in the 1990s lost some of its luster.

"We wanted to stay in the community because we could get a lot more house for what we are paying," said Taiwo Iluyomade. "And it is a stable neighborhood with a lot of potential to reclaim its glory days."

With its roomy, single-family brick and stone colonials and Tudors set far off its wide, tree-lined streets, Ashburton was once one of the region's elite, middle-class African-American neighborhoods.

Today, as more black professionals choose to live beyond the city limits and communities around it crumble with urban decay, Ashburton is fighting to remain an anomaly: an old Baltimore neighborhood that can compete with newer suburban subdivisions for homebuyers.

It's doing so with a recent infusion of young families, a strong neighborhood association, comparatively cheap housing prices and a commitment to reclaiming its history.

"Clearly, Ashburton has maintained its stature as one of the premier black middle-class communities in the area over the years," said Dunbar Brooks, demographer for the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

"But given its close proximity to Liberty [Heights Avenue], even that community was not immune to the general trend of out-migration of African-Americans citywide to Baltimore County," Brooks said.

West Baltimore's drain of black professionals began in the late 1970s and has not completely abated, Brooks said.

Towanda-Grantley, Forest Park and Park Circle are a few close-by neighborhoods that once proudly promoted a stature close to that of Ashburton's, but are much less today.

In recent years, Ashburton - once hailed as the Gold Coast for blacks - has had to deal with crime encroaching from other neighborhoods and high homeownership turnover as some of the well-to-do moved out. Homebuyers today don't necessarily dream of owning property in Ashburton as baby-boomers once did, but the neighborhood has maintained a largely positive image.

Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke lives here, so did the late Del. Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings, and so do other community leaders, judges, ministers and teachers. Such prominent residents helped build Ashburton's allure as an elite African-American haven.

The "historical power" of Ashburton - just off Liberty Heights Avenue and encircled by Wabash and Callaway avenues - helped it to weather the outward migration better than many neighbors, Brooks said.

Like most city neighborhoods, there isn't much racial integration here, true to how the neighborhood was established after Baltimore banker John Sterret Gittings 3rd sold the land to developer George R. Morris in 1916. Morris stipulated that the homes would be owned only by white Christians.

But the Great Depression forced many of the initial residents to sell their homes. By the 1940s, the neighborhood was mostly Jewish, and by the late 1960s, predominantly black.

While the neighborhoods on all sides of it have been hit hard in recent decades by drug activity and absent owners, Ashburton has remained largely an owner-occupied community with stable property values.

Last year, the median sale price for nearly two dozen houses sold in Ashburton was $111,300, according to Live Baltimore statistics, more than double and triple the price for some neighborhoods bordering it.

Homes on some Ashburton streets are beginning to sell for closer to $200,000 - a price some residents say is a steal, considering the house they are getting.

"My house would be a half-million dollars in D.C.," said Cheo Hurley, a financial analyst for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, who will move into his newly purchased brick three-bedroom, four-bath home at the end of the month.

"We definitely considered the condition of neighborhoods around Ashburton," said Hurley, whose wife, Zenita, is a Washington attorney. "But everywhere in Baltimore we looked, in Bolton Hill and Canton, there are areas around those communities, too, that are questionable."

The Hurleys, who have a month-old daughter, are Baltimore natives, and Zenita Hurley grew up on Grantley Avenue in Ashburton.

Ashburton's stability is no coincidence: Residents here have done a lot to maintain their neighborhood.

Shawn Tarrant, a pharmaceutical salesman and president of the neighborhood association, has spent time at City Hall fighting for improvements.

In 2002, he helped to get the section of Liberty Heights Avenue bordering Ashburton repaved. Speed bumps were added to one cut-through street to slow down motorists, and the community was rezoned in 1998 for single-family housing only.

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