Chris Ryer, president and CEO of the Southeast Community Development… (Steve Ruark, Special to…)
Highlandtown's Eastern Avenue is emerging as the kind of Baltimore place where you rate the sour beef and dumplings in the same sentence as the peppery Peruvian rotisserie chicken with sides of yucca and plantain. It's a spot where the traditional Baltimore train garden at the local firehouse is still reverenced, but so is the arrival of a Bhutanese grocery store.
I spent some time this week at the corner of Conkling and Eastern with Chris Ryer, a former city planner who directs the Southeast Community Development Corp. I came to him to learn about a neighborhood that is changing. After a few hours, I saw a new Highlandtown where components are fitting together. Dull or dying, it is not.
"In the late 1990s, the area was turning into a neighborhood of widows," he said. "They were living alone on their husbands' pensions."
Ryer felt the aging population contributed to the malaise of the once-bustling Eastern Avenue shopping corridor. "They didn't need to shop the way a place full of young families would," he said. "And many had cars, and they went to Eastpoint" mall.
In the minds of many Highlandtown visitors, the area suffered a calamity when the Haussner family closed its signature restaurant in 1998. When its celebrated art collection was sold in New York City, it seemed that Eastern Avenue had lost its soul. The old retailers like Irvin's and Epstein's dropped off the map. Woolworth and its big red sign disappeared in 1993.
But Highlandtown found new ways to keep its main street busy. The old Patterson movie house became the aggressively programmed Creative Alliance. The Enoch Pratt Free Library's Southeast Anchor branch, built on the site of the old Grand Theatre, routinely rivals the central library for patronage.
But you could not expect two cultural-educational institutions to keep the buzz going completely along Eastern Avenue, which has now awakened from the slumber it slipped into a decade ago.
"Look at the street," Ryer said. "It's full of people out shopping and walking. We have all these new restaurants, and they are not chains. They are owned by Latino families who work to get the doors open, often without benefit of business plans or anything but their will to make it succeed.
"Single Latino working men are living together in apartments above stores along Broadway and in other places in Fells Point," said Ryer. "But Highlandtown has the Latino families. They typically rent houses because if you are not a U.S. citizen, you can't get a mortgage. We are now the largest Latino neighborhood in Baltimore."
"It's a youthful renewal of the neighborhood," he said. "You see a lot of strollers. Highlandtown is becoming the center of Latino life. We want to see them stay here."
Like any city neighborhood, Highlandtown is a mix of differing parts. The blocks close to Patterson Park have more renovated homes commanding higher prices than the homes farther away from the park.
To the south, the Brewers Hill section seems like a big construction zone as its old breweries change their identities this summer. Greektown, at the eastern flank of Highlandtown, is also popular with Latino families, Ryer told me.
We also spoke of the continuities of the neighborhood. Sour beef and dumplings remain on the menu at the still-flourishing Eichenkranz restaurant on South Fagley Street. (Tuesday is all-you-can-eat day.) But as part of my continuing education, I am going to sample the beef tripe at Chicken Rico on Eastern Avenue, not far from where I used to have the Greek salad at the Eastern House.