A Naval Academy educator compiles stories of the past into a nearly 350-year history of his neighborhood.

Revisiting life in Annapolis enclave

October 28, 2005|By JAMIE STIEHM | JAMIE STIEHM,SUN REPORTER

As Michael P. Parker walks home in his close-knit Annapolis community, he tells stories about each tall house.

In the 15 years he has lived there, Parker has compiled enough stories to fill a book - so he did just that. The Naval Academy English professor recently wrote and published Presidents Hill: Building an Annapolis Neighborhood 1664-2005.

One story from the book was found in a lawyer's diary. James Munroe wrote on Thanksgiving Day in 1895: "Children played in the yard till after sunset. Beautiful moonlight night ... Mrs. Williams sang for us. Her voice is much improved."

On the walk, Parker points to the house that a blacksmith persuaded a builder known as "Big Jim" to build for him for $999; to the place where the local butcher, a city postmaster and the astronomer who discovered Mars dwelled; to the spot where the old smallpox hospital and the Rescue Hose Firehouse used to be, near the now-vanished railroads.

He writes about what jobs women worked during the Depression and how a street was nicknamed the "League of Nations" in the 1920s, because of the immigrants and the foreign languages heard outside the windows.

Residents opened their doors and poured out lemonade and memories to the bespectacled Parker, who came calling for details of life as it was lived on Munroe Court, Madison Place, Hill Street and Jefferson Place. These four streets make up a colorful residential enclave just off West Street in the downtown district of the state capital, within walking distance of State Circle.

Yet Parker would be the first to say his neighborhood has an entirely different feel from official Annapolis, with its late-Victorian houses that seem as if they might be equally at home perched in San Francisco.

"They don't look like other Annapolis houses. ... People who stay here go native," Parker, 52, said. "There are a lot of characters, a lot of ladies on porches on Madison Place, and a lot of artists."

Since a 19th-century family estate was divided into lots after the Civil War, one characteristic of the neighborhood has been socioeconomic diversity, Parker said.

But, he added, lately a danger of being "gentrified out of our existence" has developed.

Since he moved into his Madison Place townhouse in 1990, Parker said, researching the past, interviewing his neighbors and writing a social history of his surroundings have seemed like the natural things to do in his spare time.

Presidents Hill, he noted, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of its vintage architecture and pedigree, but little was known or collected into one volume.

"I looked into the record and realized there was nothing," he said. "So I had to do it myself."

Parker's academic specialty is 17th-century English literature. But for this project, he culled census data, state archives, newspapers, slave records, an 1840s family estate account and tax assessments. He conducted about 100 face-to-face interviews with residents. Some lifelong community residents in their 90s, such as Edith Fairman Sutton and Katherine Wells Collison, participated. A few who shared recollections died while he was still at work on the book.

The result is a local history with a compelling narrative, illustrated with black-and-white photographs, that won a community service award this month from the Historic Annapolis Foundation.

"The glory of Annapolis is its neighborhoods as distinct entities, and not many people are conscious of that," Gregory Stiverson, the foundation president, said.

"This [book] is wonderfully written, as one would expect," he added. "He did a lot of listening and sharing tales, valuable for years to come to us armchair explorers."

Parker said he could see patterns of race relations in Annapolis by studying his small square of city history. For example, he wrote, the 1920 census provides an "unparalleled snapshot of the neighborhood." Most striking, he said, was that African-American residents had disappeared from Jefferson Place since 1910, and more rigid housing segregation became clear.

The book also reminds readers that Annapolis had virulent strains ofracism: that the Ku Klux Klan had its day in the state capital, peaking in popularity there in 1922, when 2,000 men in white robes marched in the streets.

As he walks, the professor comes across a neighbor, Aimee Tydings Newquist, a day care provider married to a city firefighter. As she speaks outside her house, she may as well have stepped out of the pages of his book.

"I lived in the neighborhood my whole life," Newquist said. "My mother and my sister and her two children, my niece and nephew live here, too."

The author beams, as if he knows the characters by heart.

jamie.stiehm@baltsun.com

Michael P. Parker will sign copies of his book from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Nov. 20 at the Hard Bean Coffee & BookSellers near City Dock.

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