Entrepreneurville

How a city neighborhood represents a generation of workers out on their own

April 30, 2006|By STACEY HIRSH | STACEY HIRSH,SUN REPORTER

A typical weekday begins this way for several denizens of Keswick: They get out of bed, stroll a couple of blocks away to the Evergreen, the favorite neighborhood coffee bar, trade neighborly pleasantries and then head back home.

Where they begin their day's work.

An unusually high number of entrepreneurs who work from their homes are clustered in this tiny neighborhood, which is tucked between Roland Park and Guilford. And that common trait among neighbors here has helped them to rely on one another for the kind of workplace networking that might otherwise come from a colleague at the next cubicle.

Chris Hartlove, a photographer whose basement office includes a big wooden desk adorned with computer screens, equates the feel of the neighborhood to that of a small town. He frequents the coffeehouse in the mornings with his other neighbors who work from home: "In some ways, it's an extended group."

Nearly a third of the 102 homes here harbor one or more entrepreneurs, according to a tally by the neighborhood association. The rate is more than double the national figures, which show that 13.6 percent of U.S. households had at least one self-employed individual in 2004, the most recent year data are available, according to the Small Business Administration's Office of Advocacy.

Though this Baltimore neighborhood is certainly not the only one of its kind, it illustrates the growing generation of entrepreneurs born from technological advances, layoffs and early retirements.

It represents a growing lifestyle, one in which creative people converge on neighborhoods that have old homes with character, nearby shopping and other attributes that suit their busy way of life, said Anthony Warren, a professor of entrepreneurship at Penn State's Smeal College of Business. Philadelphia, for instance, has such a neighborhood near one of its museums, Warren said. And experts point to the artists who converged on New York City's SoHo in the 1970s, making that neighborhood unique as well.

"I think each city has these kind of neighborhoods that once they begin to roll, it attracts other people," Warren said.

It is not one specific kind of entrepreneur who resides in the Baltimore neighborhood of Keswick, which residents here refer to as "Alonsoville." That moniker comes from the neighborhood's local bar and hamburger joint, Alonso's, on Cold Spring Lane. They range in age from mid-30s to late 50s. They are lobbyists and advertising professionals and photographers, along with many others.

And there are copywriters like John Stack, who feel like they're in good company in Alonsoville.

A resident since 1992, he works from a desk in his dining room with his "office assistant" Bart the dog. Stack acknowledges he misses some of the collaboration that comes with working in an office atmosphere. But he and other residents agree that there's a sense of camaraderie that seems to come from running your home business in a place where so many others are doing the same.

Many residents said it wasn't until after they moved into the neighborhood that they learned they were among peers with their entrepreneurial spirit. But once they realized their fortune, neighborhood entrepreneurs began to rely on one another for help.

Stack, for instance, asked photographer John Dean to edit baseball videos that his son used to apply for college scholarships. Dean once held an art opening at a hair salon in the neighborhood, which is owned by an Alonsoville resident. And when Cyndy Serfas, who does advertising from her spare-bedroom-turned-office, needed a computer zip drive, freelance photographer Chris Hartlove, who lives and works down the street, gave her one. As a thank you, she baked him an apple cake.

Living in such an environment can create a valuable support structure for entrepreneurs, said Karen Thornton, program director for the University of Maryland's Hinman Campus Entrepreneurship Opportunities (CEO) program. The Hinman program houses 70 to 100 entrepreneurial students from different majors in the same dormitory, with access to their own computer lab, copy machine, community room and a weekly class in the dorm on entrepreneur basics. Housing all the students together, Thornton said, helps foster the development of ideas.

"It's a family," Thornton said. "In a family, you understand people and the roots where they're coming from, and when you go out in the community, you always want to return to your family."

In Alonsoville, those community ties have inspired local events that seem a throwback to a bygone era when neighborhood backyard barbecues were the norm. On New Year's Eve, the neighborhood gathers to watch a lighted blue cardboard crab lowered into a sparkly cardboard pot as they count down to midnight and then head to someone's house for drinks. And each Memorial Day there are bike, pet and baby parades followed by a neighborhood picnic.

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