Northeast Baltimore's byways and bungalows have found a champion in Eric L. Holcomb, whose new 266-page volume tours the porch-front charm of the self-effacing neighborhoods tucked behind the Harford-Belair road main streets.
Even Baltimoreans familiar with the area will find something new to learn within The City As Suburb: A History of Northeast Baltimore Since 1660.
Edison Highway, I discovered, was named by Baltimore rowhouse builder E.J. Gallagher. Mr. Gallagher had been asked to name the boulevard being planned in 1931 to link East Baltimore's industrial sites with residential neighborhoods, as we say, "out the Belair Road." He was listening to the radio and heard a report that inventor Thomas Edison had died. That did it.
Holcomb also tells of how The Alameda got its exotic name, which is "of Spanish origin and is used in the southwestern United States to mean a shady way or walk planted with alamos or cottonwoods."
Holcomb, a city planner with a background in historical preservation, was born in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and lived in Gaithersburg before moving a decade ago to a very Baltimore place, the neighborhood called Arcadia. He soon discovered Arcadia was aptly named, close to the Herring Run valley and with plenty of mature trees. Its 1920s frame cottages, Cape Cods and Mediterranean villas are the kinds of homes that fill Christmas garden streets.
One day recently, he told me that what we tend to lump together as greater Lauraville, Hamilton and Gardenville was, in the 1880s, a patchwork of small truck farms. Their enterprising owners worked the fields and loaded wagons in the dawn on market days, then hauled their produce to the Bel Air Market so the city's rowhouse dwellers would have a good dinner come Saturday night.
With the arrival of the electric streetcar -- and what must have been a small army of carpenters, along with small-scale real estate operators -- all sorts of independent developments were hatched on the one-time farm fields. I love some of the names of these places: Evergreen and Westphal Lawn, Beverly Hills, Altoona Park, Belmar, Mayfield, Powellnaron, Belgravia, Anthonyville, Woodlea and Waltherson.
In 1920, there were plenty of families waiting to bolt from an old city house on Aisquith Street, leave St. James the Less, join St. Dominic's and get a lot of grass to mow on Gibbons Avenue.
Holcomb's book is nicely printed, bound and illustrated. He was lucky to locate the archive of photographer James H. Lewis, whose remarkable pictures of 1925 Northeast Baltimore show just what Mayor Howard Jackson and the early planning commissions wanted to achieve.
There is also a remarkable quotation from the May 5, 1917, Afro-American about how the pillars of the Lauraville neighborhood opposed the relocation of then-Morgan College to Northeast Baltimore.
The book has a personal side. It was published by the Center for American Places, a Santa Fe, N.M., tax-exempt organization. Holcomb's father, William, contributed to the cost of the publication.
Some 1,200 copies of City as Suburb were printed, and are sold at only a few local outlets. It is distributed by the University of Virginia Press.