Morning stroll through Patterson Park reveals old (and new) Baltimore

July 15, 2006

Even the hot days afford a little heat break before the sun sets on the horizon. I stepped into Patterson Park the other day just as the morning dog walkers were starting to head home. Within a few minutes, I was humming "In the Good Old Summertime" to myself.

The park and its venerable pagoda looked like a picture postcard from 1907: a spraying Victorian fountain, beds of canna plants intermixed with benches, cannon and walks. I wondered why more people weren't out to enjoy all this, but it turned to be a paper recycling day. I saw more residents gathering and bagging their grocery bags and newspapers than I did aimless walkers like myself.

The signs on the corners say this is Butchers Hill. Indeed, as a pedestrian, you notice the contours of Baltimore and just how high you are in some places. It might not be San Francisco, but the views south toward the harbor are mighty nice here on a July morning.

I first got to know Butchers Hill nearly 30 years ago when some friends took on the rehabilitation of a huge East Baltimore rowhouse near Patterson Park Avenue. I'd visit them for parties, but I would often just go from a car to their front door without doing much exploration of the nearby streets.

Time and tree growth have been kind to these streets. Summer mornings bring out the best in Baltimore's magnificent rowhouses. I found myself peeping into areaways and catching a glimpse of little gardens and alley houses. When our 19th-century ancestors built, they built well. This is no longer a neighborhood in transition; it has arrived at its destination.

I walked around St. Michael's Roman Catholic Church, with its tower, collection of stout bronze bells and four clocks, each giving accurate time. I observed the old convent, the rectory, the school -- all in their proper places, just as we do it in Baltimore -- with an old synagogue a few blocks away, now a Baptist church. If I wanted to visit a classic, well-aged neighborhood, this would be it.

It isn't hard to imagine some 1890s German couple sitting under a grape arbor here. But as I walked along East Pratt Street, there was anything but antiquity. A new, very stylish restaurant has opened with sleek letters announcing its one-word name: Salt. I've heard about it, and I bet the tables are filled this summer.

What appeals so much in Butchers Hill is a diversity of race and incomes. It is reflected in the architecture and exterior decor: prim at one address, hot orange woodwork at another, all in the same block.

I also began noticing people on their way to work and how many were dressed in surgical scrubs. I thought that many were headed to Johns Hopkins Hospital, which is just up the hill and a little to the east, but I also caught sight of some University of Maryland parking stickers.

Most of the renovation and construction seems to have been completed here, but there is still evidence of carpenters and their power tools, ready to fulfill the promises of the water views and park overlooks that a sign announced.

Maybe the summer of 2006 does not have as much hyper-gentrification as in other years, but every time I turned a corner, it seemed as if there was some evidence of the new Baltimore sidling in against the old, often within 40 feet of each other.

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