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Charles Village

Most Livable??

 

Charles Village has long been considered a desirable neighborhood. This fact is inferred by real estate agents' trying to tell you that the neighborhood might even extend as far south as North Avenue! Most would set the south boundary above 25th Street. The most definitive fact about the neighborhood is that Johns Hopkins University Homewood Campus is located there, its students spilling out into the streets, the shops, the restaurants and drinking holes. But if the students anchor the neighborhood, they also cause rents to rise; and through the years the University has gobbled up the best of the once grand apartment buildings.

This writer had no intention about spouting off about  all the ills of Charles Village. -- until the "American Planning Association" designated it as one of the ten most livable neighborhoods in the country!!!! This would cause anyone to fall on the floor laughing. You see, I knew Charles Village, Senator! Charles Village was a friend of mine. Charles Village, you are not Top Ten callibre. I lived in Charles Village for ten years.

 

 

 

If a criterion for Top Ten is lots of bright young people, Charles Village has these in hordes, not just the students but solid professional folks who could easily get downtown by bus, or at least get to a bus stop and hope and pray.(Recently the #61 bus was yanked off, except for a couple of morning and evening runs.) Transportation is easier for those who work at the East Baltimore Hopkins campus. There is a shuttle. The students provide a certain vibrancy and street energy (dogs tied to the parking meter in front of Eddie's food market as their owners dash into the store to make a quick purchase with their debit cards; that sort of thing). Hopkins recently moved its student bookstore out of the deep bowels of Gilman Hall, far into the campus, right onto St. Paul and 33rd Streets, making that Barnes and Noble a true neighborhood bookstore replete with coffee shop. Some residents find the students a questionable blessing, like a plague of one-year locusts returning each Fall. Try to find a parking space then!!

 

One could run a whole blog on the parking ills which beset this wonderful, livable neighborhood! Perhaps there is such a blog. In summary: all kinds of odd parking regulations and meter hours...resident parking passes of limited value...all cars *must* be off St. Paul Street by 7 a.m....towing...predatory meter maids...excellent chance of your parked car getting damaged, due to other drivers squeezing too close. Ambulances roar into Union Memorial Hospital  at all hours. Helicopters might also land on the roof....Saturday Waverly Street Market, much fun, right up 32nd St. Last time I went there I spent 9 minutes and found a ticket on my car for some obscure reason.

 

In the 1970's and early 80's the neighborhood was more livable. There were actually pharmacies!  There was a family-owned pharmacy at 3lst and St. Paul. The Blackstone, at 33rd Street,  had a dining area! At Calvert and 30th, a drugstore also carried beer. A satellite post office in a bookstore at 32nd and St. Paul could help most users avoid the perilous trip, 9 blocks east and tucked away somewhere off Kirk Avenue, to the zone 21218 post office. The Homewood Deli glued the neighborhood together. Can't say much for the food but the conversations were exceptional! Earlier, the deli even contained a Silber's Bakery. What delicious cheese pastries! Unfortunately, the whole Silber's chain had to close when a mouse was found cooked up with the muffins. Was this so bad? We all know about the 4 and 20 blackbirds baked in a pie!The Blue Jay Lounge was a comfortable community restaurant. It was not primarily a drinking place. You entered to a bar on the right where the row of determined drinkers sat. Most of the space, though, sported comfortable booths, with larger tables at the rear. The lights were low. The burgers were tasty. The waitresses were mature women. One night this writer, whose 4th floor walkup at the St. Paul Court Apts.hung right over the 3100 block St. Paul, was kept awake by a never before heard ruckus. Overnight, the sedate Blue Jay, always closed by midnight, was replaced by the  Charles Village Pub. The decibel level increased by 2 a.m. closing.

 

The demise of the Blue Jay stood as a synecdoche for a change of thought in the University and its participants. Students who stayed cloistered on the campus, migrating from the library to the classrooms to the dining hall and ratskeller to the movies (also on-campus) suddenly wanted a real University neighborhood. Currently, a variety of eateries and shops have cropped up along St. Paul Street. But the neighborhood only got half a loaf. The firm that was in charge of remodeling the 3200 block St. Paul Street completed the east side of the street. Then the money went away. Property values plunged. A gaping space remains on the west side, the neighborhood version of an attractive woman who got a few front teeth knocked out. Someone had planned very poorly!

 

But there must be something really super about this neighborhood to have the "American Planning Association" rate it as one of the l0 most desirable ones in the country? Perhaps the neighborhood has escaped the sad blight of every other urban city! Could it be that Charles Village is the one neighborhood that has zero crime?

Not quite! Longtime readers of the Baltimore Sun, might know the name "Dorothy Croswell." (RIP) because this unique and special woman has been memorialized by an ace Sun reporter who knew her well. I also knew Miss Croswell. Truly, she could be counted on to be found at the same place at various times of the week, e.g. waiting with her pushcart of clothes on Saturdays just before the 8 a.m. opening of the St. Paul Street laundry.  Sunday mornings (circa l980's)  found Miss Croswell waiting in Lovegrove Alley at the rear of her Charles Street apartment, where friends would collect her for Second Presbyterian Church. One Sunday, as she waited, she was knocked to the ground, her pocketbook stolen. She escaped serious injury. Passersby came to her assistance.

Another woman, Kivili Ramu (RIP) lived an a rear basement apartment whose only door opened right onto a parking lot at Lovegrove Alley. (One election day both of these women were at the polls waiting for the 7 a.m. opening. Miss Croswell was first in line, of course. Kiveli dared to place herself in front. She got quite a dressing down from Miss C. for not queueing!)  Anyhow, one evening, dusk just setting in, Kivili  and Margaret Mudge (RIP) got mugged a few feet away from the site of the mugging of Miss Croswell. But this is small stuff unless you are the one traumatized and afraid to go out your door. Through the years, murders have occurred though it is hard to track the ones before the onset of the internet and all the crime blogs. Bridget Phillips was a Hopkins student in 1989. One night in March 1989, as she entered her apartment in the 2800 block Calvert Street she became a victim of one of the most brutal attacks that detectives have ever encountered. The killer is said to have lingered in his victim's apartment for an hour, cleaning up himself and the crime scene. The case is unsolved.

 

The murder of Linda Trinh, a brilliant bioengineering major at Hopkins,  in January 2005 jarred the Charles Village community, following closely on the heels of the murder of another student, Christopher Elser. Mr. Elser was the victim of a home break-in  which sadly occurred a night when, ironically, Mr. Elser was not sleeping at his own home. He had swapped his apartment that night with a fellow student who required a quiet place to cram for his exams. Mr. Elser spent the night at a fraternity house on St. Paul and 30th Streets.  The frat house was doing what frat houses in C. V. do best--having a loud party.  Somebody failed to lock the door. Around 6 a.m. death entered...a crime of opportunity...a crime yet unsolved.

 

Numerous town-hall meetings and  sweating by Hopkins administrators followed Mr. Elser's death. Here was a young man who had followed his father to the renowned hall of learning. The college did not want the world to think that Hopkins was not a safe place to send students! (In fairness,  the university has done about everything that can be done to make students safe: special patrols; van rides; emergency phones and lights, and more).  What could anyone have done to prevent the murder of Linda Trinh?

 

 The once desirable apartment house, the Charles, 3333 N. Charles Street, had been annexed for college housing. It sits directly across the street from the Milton S. Eisenhower Library. In this building, Trinh shared an apartment with a couple of roommates. Donta Allen, age 28, came crashing in from an alien world. An underprivileged  child from one of Baltimore's most drug torn neighborhoods, he was an alumnus of the notorious "Hickey School for Boys." His history included a suicide attempt. He scrambled from home to home. He once lived with a woman for nearly a year, until she sought a restraining order against him. At the time of the murder of Trinh, he was staying with friends on Matthews Street in Waverly, a few blocks but a few worlds from Johns Hopkins University. Yet, Allen was pulled to the Hopkins milieu as if by a magnet. He took a job at a restaurant patronized by students. He mingled, socialized with and dated students, was invited to their parties. Occasionally after these parties, students might note that wallets were missing. Theft was never proved.

 

A reader might find something compellingly sad about Mr. Allen. He was bright and amusing. People liked him. It is unlikely that he hung with the students only to steal from them. There are less time-consuming ways to rip them off than that. Was he peddling drugs? That was never said. Did he have a fantasy of wanting to be one of the students? Did he enjoy the the campus life? Did he hate these wealthy, pampered students? Did he hate himself? Over the holiday break, he entered the 2nd floor flat where Trinh lived , expecting no one to be home. Trinh was home. Trinh  knew who Allen was. After the murder, Donta tore up a picture of the woman. Again the Hopkins and Charles Village communities were up in arms. Town meetings were held. The police caught their man this time.  Two years after the murder, the slow wheels of justice finally ground out its verdict: life in prison. Parole is possible.

 

The fact that this site has featured only two or three flamboyant murders does not mean that these were the only murders in Charles Village in recent memory! A woman was shot to death on 32nd Street by a person known to her. Do we want to count the newborn that was jammed into a dumpster by its mother in the early morning of Oct. 4, 2008?  Or the murder of one Hopkins student by another student 7 or 8 years ago in front of the Hopkins library? On July 27, 2007, a Good Samaritan trying to intervene in an assault at St. Paul and 31st Street received a knife in his intestines for his trouble (non-fatal).

 

The fact is that Charles Village has been a dodgy place for crime from way back. Thirty years ago a couple purchased a house at 29th and St. Paul Street. Even before the arrival of the moving vans, the woman was alone on the first floor surveying the coveted purchase. A man entered the house. No murder occurred, but after what did occur, it would have been very hard to continue living there. Let's get more recent. The Hopkins Newsletter of 11/8/08 reported 5 robberies of students in the past week in the small area bounded by Charles Street, St. Paul Street, 30th St. and 33rd Streets. Want even more recent? Go to the Baltimore Police Department site: http://141.157.54.34/bpdmaps.

 

Life in Charles Village is a case of the shadows and the light. There is much light. There is  positive-energy street life in the students and in the people who have burrowed in doggedly to declare themselves neighborhood lifers. There is strong community identity and neighborhood organizations. The residents tend to be pleasant. The University extends cultural life to the community at large, offering plays, music  and lectures. The Baltimore Art Museum is here. The Dell in Wyman Park recently held a solstice festival. People sleigh ride there in the snow. One finds ethnic restaurants. Downtown is nearby. One could do far worse than live in Charles Village. But even a rose garden has thorns.

  Update! I'd say "Stop Press" except that there isn't much printed word press left in this city! I know the 300 block E. University Parkway. Eons ago I waited every morning for the #22 bus in this block. Go back decades. An elderly woman named Townes, and a more innocuous person you could never meet, was savaged by a home invasion in this block. University Parkway is generally accepted as the northern boundary of Charles Village, leading into Oakenshaw. http://www.magickalmind.com/writings.htm  In September 2009 around midnight, a man broke into the home of a Hopkins student who rented in this block. Annoyingly, it was the 2nd time that day that a robber had visited!  Donald Rice, a man who had 29 priors, had been released from the Baltimore County Detention Center just a couple of days before. According to a Johns Hopkins newspaper, the area had increased its police presence due to a recent rash of crimes. On this particular night, a man who lives a block away reported hearing screams. The Hopkins student had pierced Mr. Rice with a samurai sword, inflicting fatal injuries.
  Stephen Pitcairn, a Johns Hopkins researcher in his early 20's, hailed from Florida, attended college in Michigan, did stem cell research in Japan, visited a relative in New York City and met his untimely end on a Charles Village Street one night in late July, 2010. Walking home from the bus from New York, he had reached the 2600 block St. Paul Street, and was talking to his mother on his cell phone when he was robbed and stabbed by a male and female with long criminal histories. Charles Village, a very livable community, can also be a place to die.