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On foam, farewells and Federal Hill

After eight months away, it has been interesting to see the latest twists and turns my old neighborhood in Baltimore has taken.

For 10 years, I lived in not quite Federal Hill, never – until now — within its exact boundaries, but on its periphery: first in the Riverside neighborhood, and later in another that, while it doesn’t have a name, per se, falls under the direction of a neighborhood association called the South Baltimore Improvement Committee.

Living in an “improvement” district keeps you from getting a big head, and perhaps the same can be said of living in Baltimore. To me, the charm of “Charm City” has always been its lack of arrogance. Having “improvement” in your neighborhood name, on the other hand, seems to reinforce a “you’re not quite good enough” message: “Hey, you still have a way to go, SoBoImCo, before you can attach “Hill” or “River” or “Point” or some other scenic term to your name.”

The gentrification of South Baltimore – and whether that’s synonymous with improvement is arguable — was well underway when I arrived 10 years ago, not quite young, not quite upscale, definitely not gentry.

Immediately, I felt more of a connection with the old and vanishing, stoop-sitting side of the area than its younger, newer denizens – those being the rooftop deckers, the wine-tasters, the perpetually texting woo-hoo! girls and the loud, backwards-cap-wearing frat boys who clog up Cross Street

Far more interesting (not to mention closer to my age group) were the old-timers, the ones with stories to tell, the ones who knew the area’s history and had some themselves, the ones who, as the neighborhoods of Federal Hill, Riverside, Locust Point and SoBoImCo transformed,  were being priced out of the block they’d grown up on. If that weren’t enough, they were seeing almost all their old watering holes dry up – reopening with trendier names, upscaled décor and higher prices.

A few years after I arrived, the gentrification of South Baltimore was in full swing, and it seemed likely that day would come that it crossed all the way over – that the last patches of the original canvas, all those interesting textures, would be layered over with more boring, modern hues. Then again, what is any neighborhood but a work in progress?

Since being back, Ace and I have spent the month living in a friend’s house in actual Federal Hill before her tenants arrive, and we’ve been enjoying the rooftop deck, and the hot tub on it. (After steeping for five minutes, I do start feeling a little like gentry.) Walking the neighborhood with Ace, I can see that the transition continues – though slowed by the lousy economy — for better and worse.

There are more empty storefronts along Charles Street than I’ve ever noticed before, and two of my favorite institutions are closing up shop.

Gone is the House of Foam, a curious establishment that, in addition to foam, sold a mish-mash of electronic gadgets. As there weren’t too many times I found myself in need of foam, I only went in once, but I loved the name, and the sign. They’ve relocated to a new neighborhood, on Russell Street, in what used to be a Staples.

Also departing is Lucky Lucy’s Canine Café, whose owner Nancy Dixon (also my temporary landlord) has decided to close up shop – more for family reasons than anything else. The shop is up for sale, meaning it could reopen again as a doggie haven, with homemade treats, pet food and toys – or maybe as something else entirely.

Meanwhile, down at the shopping center, the Shopper’s Supermarket has been reconfigured and the entire complex is receiving a facelift. Apparently, with a huge new condominium development called McHenry Row going up, and a new Harris-Teeter grocery store arriving, the management at Southside MarketPlace decided it was time to upscale or die.

There were rumors that the Goodwill thrift store was going to close – highly upsetting to me — but I’ve since heard that, under its lease, it will be around a couple more years at least.

Part of the reason I’m waxing nostalgic is because three two more things are leaving South Baltimore – two of those being Ace and me, at least for a while.

After a month spent reuniting with friends, our travels will continue. We’re headed to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the town in which I was born, and where my mother still lives. It will be our home base for a few months, during which time we plan a few side trips. Stick with us and you can read about those expeditions, as well as our new living arrangements – in the basement of an aging mansion.

As for that third thing that’s leaving, it’s another classic piece of South Baltimore – one we’ll pay tribute to tomorrow.

 (Tomorrow: “One for the Road,” a tribute to the South Baltimore’s old school bars)

Comments

Comment from Sue
Time February 21, 2011 at 6:22 pm

Rats! No carriage house?! However, the basement of an aging mansion… sounds interesting!

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