Union Square: Exploring Baltimore’s neighborhoods

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From the exterior, the rowhouse at 1524 Hollins Street is indistinguishable from the other grand, three-story Victorians overlooking Union Square. Since 1997, when Baltimore closed its City Life museums, the interior has been left largely unkempt, save for some general maintenance efforts by the Friends of the H.L. Mencken House. But in the backyard blooms a lush urban garden, dutifully maintained by Betsey Waters and the Society to Preserve H.L. Mencken’s Legacy.

Union Square

» Border streets: Frederick Ave./Booth St./S. Carey St./W. Pratt St./ S. Fulton Ave.
» Neighboring areas: Franklin Square, Hollins Market, New Southwest/Mount Claire, Carrollton Ridge

“When we came to ask [the city] for a presence in the house, they couldn’t find the front door key. The garden was all ivy. You couldn’t have seen the brick,” said Waters, whose goals for the home of the legendary writer and long-time Baltimore Sun scribe are to pursue a lease with the city, tap into some of a $3 million endowment for the house for select renovations, set up a center for writers, and create a museum and give tours to visitors. The garden is an important initial step in a quest for urban renewal.

Throughout Union Square and the adjacent Hollins Market, passion projects created by residents to improve quality of life are seemingly everywhere. The strong housing stock, rich history of the neighborhood, proximity to highways, public transportation and downtown, and sense of community are among the reasons why the neighborhoods have drawn new residents in droves.

Chris Taylor, the president of Union Square’s community association, was in the market for a home about a decade ago. He and his wife wanted something in Bolton Hill and also considered Reservoir Hill, but eventually zeroed in on Union Square, despite its well-documented problems with crime and vacants.

“I did feel like it was sort of like an island,” said Taylor, the co-owner of Urban Space Developers. “That scared me a little bit, and it was 10 times worse, I mean really bad back then. We’re talking 11 years ago. A lot of vacants, a lot of activity in the neighborhood.

We just took a chance and bought a house on the park that was a fraction of what we were going to pay in Reservoir Hill even, and Reservoir Hill was still a transitional neighborhood, too. For half the price we get the same house but [could] be in a similar situation. We saw the potential with the downtown and the [Hollins] Market and everything. Luckily it’s worked out. It’s changed drastically.”

Curbing the vacancy rate has been the biggest step toward improvement. Taylor said that in 2006, the neighborhood association took a survey of Union Square and found that the number of vacants was just below 50 percent. Now he estimates that “we’re probably around 10 or 11 percent.”

All around the neighborhood there’s evidence of renewal. During our walking tour of the area last month, front porches and window sills displayed potted plants and flowers as part of Union Square’s annual Bloom Your Block competition. On one corner lot, a screen was painted onto the side of a garage so community empowerment documentaries could be shown through a partnership with Maryland’s school of social work.

“All these lots used to be overgrown,” said Bif Browning, a Mississippi native who moved to Union Square in 2006 and serves as Taylor’s vice president on the neighborhood association. “We got rid of the negatives and turned them into positives. … We’re also pushing for a regional library and working to establish five-to-10 parks around the city.”

Business is picking up in the area, too. In addition to Hollins Market, you can find pizza (Zella’s Pizzeria), Tex-Mex (Mi Ranchito), Peruvian chicken (Primo Chicken), pub food (Patrick’s of Pratt Street), coffee (CUPS) and a number of other food options nearby.

The final stop of our Southwest corridor tour is the University of Maryland BioPark on West Baltimore Street, where plans are in place for a cancer treatment center specializing in proton therapy. Jane Shaab, the assistant vice president for economic development, says that the BioPark is also working toward 2 million square feet of commercial space, “predominantly for life sciences … and other technology innovation companies.”

Progress has been quicker here compared to development in Union Square and Hollins Market, but the efforts of people like Browning and Taylor are similarly valuable, Shaab said.

“These smart neighbors, about two years ago, came to BioPark and the University of Maryland and said, ‘If you will work with us, we have a great ambition to really bring our neighborhood to fulfillment.’ It’s working and we’re on our way together.”

This is part of an ongoing series from The Baltimore Sun about the history, culture, and future of Baltimore’s neighborhoods. Have a suggestion for what neighborhood to explore next? Let us know.