On a blistering cold New Year’s Eve, the body heat is welcome inside the Creative Alliance. Dancers of all ages sway to the sultry, jazzy sounds of the Bumper Jacksons on stage with local beat-boxer Shodekeh, who layers the music with percussive hums and taps. As the show winds down, patrons peruse the diverse artwork of Amy Sherald in the lobby gallery before heading to an after-party just down the street at Snake Hill, a sausage and beer bar, where a DJ spins until closing time. In other words, 2017 in Highlandtown kicked off at one of the neighborhood’s anchor institutions and ended at a bar that’s less than two years old.
Bookended by the old and the new, the trailblazer and the trendy, the evening reflects a neighborhood that has long been undergoing a revitalization and is now seeing those changes come to fruition. Thanks to strong community partnerships, and a heavy emphasis on diversity and the arts, Highlandtown is experiencing a renaissance—a case study in how to revitalize a neighborhood while keeping its character.
“Highlandtown would be a great example of how all of Baltimore can revive,” says shop owner Juan Carlos Nuñez. “We’re firing on all cylinders with the businesses, community, houses, art galleries. But this kind of thing doesn’t happen overnight.”
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The impetus for Highlandtown’s growth can be traced back decades ago. As so many things do in this blue-collar neighborhood, it stems from U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a founding member of SECO—or the Southeast Community Organization.
Along with preventing a highway from forming in the middle of Fells Point, SECO is responsible for starting the Southeast Community Development Corporation (CDC), which has had its hand in many Highlandtown success stories since its inception in 1975.
“Community development organizations were created to spur investment in disinvested areas, encourage affordable housing, and try to bring everyone together despite their differences,” says Southeast CDC director Chris Ryer.
During the late ’90s and early 2000s, local organizers in Baltimore took a cue from thriving 36th Street in Hampden and started their own Main Streets programs to encourage new businesses along busy thoroughfares. At the same time, an organization called Healthy Neighborhoods was being developed for undervalued areas of potential in the city.
This happy confluence of groups all began swirling around Southeast Baltimore and, in particular, Hollandtown, as it’s pronounced by local residents. A few years later, an arts collective called the Creative Alliance decided to move from its home in Fells Point to the old Patterson Theater.
“Even putting the shovel in the ground started a ripple effect of something positive in the neighborhood,” says Creative Alliance co-founder Margaret Footner. “Investors took notice and the rehab kicked in pretty quickly.”
But as is the case in so many neighborhoods around the country, initial investment does not always lead to long-term growth. So what makes Highlandtown different?
“Walking to work here every day reminded me of Sesame Street.”
“I remember when I first moved here from Queens,” says Southeast CDC’s neighborhood programs director Kari Snyder. “Highlandtown had that same flair. I heard languages from all over the world, people were so friendly and community-oriented. It sounds silly, but walking to work here every day reminded me of Sesame Street.”
While many people in Baltimore were setting up shop in more popular neighborhoods such as Canton and Fells Point, a subtle groundswell was taking place in Highlandtown.
“When I opened up, all the Latino businesses were basically on Broadway,” says Carlos Cruz, who’s owned sports bar Carlos O’Charlie’s since 2006. “But I saw a little bit of construction here and there and had a great idea that this would be the next big area. I immediately felt welcome in Highlandtown.”
Businesses like Cruz’s remain the backbone of the Eastern Avenue corridor. Maintaining them during the recession and 2015 Uprising was no easy feat and owners leveraged strong partnerships with Highlandtown Main Street and the Baltimore Community Foundation for assistance.
Even a seemingly simple program—like a facade grant that provides a $1-for-$1 match to improve windows, doors, signage, and other exterior work for small businesses—goes a long way.
“I’ve had many conversations about how perception is so important,” says Highlandtown Main Street manager Amanda Smit-Peters. “We work really hard to make things look nice. But we’re also teaching business owners how to apply for these grants. We never just come in and do it for them because that’s not sustainable.”
Another thing that separates Highlandtown’s community from the pack is that there are many residents “doubling down” and buying places to both live and work, like the owners of Highlandtown Gallery, RoofTop Hot, Y:ART Gallery, Snake Hill, and Michael Owen Art.
Of course, housing itself also had to recover from the recession. But that eventually started to bounce back, too.
“Over the last five or six years, investors came back and—house by house, block by block—you started to see that change,” says Mark Parker, pastor of Breath of God Lutheran Church and board member of the Highlandtown Community Association.
Now, according to Live Baltimore, Highlandtown is the ninth top-selling neighborhood in the city with 30 percent growth in the value of home sales just this past year. Similarly, the building vacancy rate has decreased from 30 to 9 percent in the last 10 years.
“The first half of the decade was more under the radar with housing and businesses. That’s when you saw the opening of mom-and-pop shops like grocery stores, five-and-dimes, and barber shops,” Ryer says. “When you think about it, the neighborhood hadn’t really turned over in 100 years. It was due.”
A vibrant mural on the corner of Bank Street and Highland Avenue—a stone’s throw from Cinco de Mayo grocery store, Little Morocco Cafe, and Hoehn’s Bakery—tells Highlandtown’s history as a melting pot in a nutshell.
On the left, artist Joel Bergner used hues of amber and gold to depict European immigrants, who populated Southeast Baltimore from the 1800s until the mid-20th century. The right side, adding cooler tones of blues and greens, celebrates the community as it looks today—diverse and full of Latino immigrants.
“This has always been a neighborhood of immigrants,” Smit-Peters says. “You don’t get your Matthew’s, Hoehn’s, and DiPasquale’s around for 100 years without remembering where we started and keeping that going.”
As the mural suggests, the latest census data found that 34 percent of Highlandtown residents are Hispanic, many hailing from Mexico, El Salvador, and Puerto Rico. More recently, there has been an influx of Middle Eastern and African immigrants and refugees.
“Jambalaya is the best way I can describe it,” says Lynne Distance, branch manager of the Southeast Anchor Library, who has worked at every branch in the Enoch Pratt Free Library system. “You’ve got a mixture of everything here. When I look to hire people, I make sure they can speak at least one or two languages.”
The immigrant culture permeates nearly every aspect of the neighborhood, from the Hispanic-owned businesses to the diverse makeup of community leadership.
“Southeast Baltimore wouldn’t be growing if not for the immigrant community,” Snyder says. “It’s incredibly important that they stay here and we do a lot of things to encourage them to stay.”
Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore partners with the Southeast CDC to provide home-loan assistance to lower income families. Also, programs through United Way help counsel people at risk of eviction.
The library turned a former cafe into a “creation station” where local families can take (or teach) classes in cooking, sewing, and robotics. The branch also provides video job interviews for people who don’t have transportation.
In addition, residents say, the community associations make it a priority to represent the demographics of the neighborhood so that no one feels left out of the conversation.
“Our goal is that the board of directors consists of longtime residents, immigrants, and people with different economic backgrounds,” Parker says. “Our association probably has 100 active members, and we need to make sure those 100 are an accurate reflection.”
While most residents and business owners admit that Highlandtown isn’t perfect, there is an overwhelming sense of pride in its diversity.
“The neighborhood hadn’t really turned over in 100 years. It was due.”
“If you look at the history of Baltimore, there have always been pockets of segregation,” says Nuñez, who owns Tops in Cellulars on Highland Avenue. “But we’ve got every race and every culture here and we somehow make it work.”
One way they are making it work is through the arts, like Creative Alliance’s former SalsaPolkaLooza event that blended the old and new immigrant populations. Or Artesanas Mexicanas, a program started by Maria Aldana, in which Mexican women teach traditional arts, like piñata- and altar-making, to the community.
“This is a way to show and transmit my tradition and make me feel at home,” says master artist Yesenia Mejia Knight. “I am able to show my son how his mom was raised in Mexico. I have made friendships and feel like I have a new family here.”
It’s these kinds of connections that set Highlandtown apart, Footner says: “It’s not just build it and they will come. We have made it our mission to develop relationships with very different kinds of people in the community. And we’ve drawn in outside energy from people all over the state to come and visit Highlandtown.”
An emphasis on the arts can be seen in plenty of places outside the Patterson’s walls, too. After all, the neighborhood is an official Maryland Arts & Entertainment District and its blocks are lined with local galleries, colorful murals, and creative installations.
“We invest a lot of money into what we call place-making projects,” Snyder says. “This has been a way to re-envision how we use our public spaces and create a new identity.”
This reinvention can also be seen in a crop of businesses that have opened in the last two years. There’s the Italian corner bar Gnocco, massive brewery Monument City, whiskey distillery Old Line Spirits, and sausage bar Snake Hill, just to name a few.
“We keep joking we’ll call it the Highlandtown circuit,” says Snake Hill co-owner Randy Coffren, who has been a local resident for 10 years. “For me, this is a proud neighborhood instead of a transient one. People want to stick around because Highlandtown has flavor—it feels like a city. I don’t want to live in a place where all my neighbors look the same and drive the same BMW.”
Adjacent to Snake Hill is the 500-pound gorilla in the neighborhood, Highland Haus, a six-story building with 65 market-rate apartments built by commercial developer Peter Garver and set to open this fall in the old Haussner’s restaurant space.
“Now what you’re seeing take shape are anchor buildings that are bigger and harder to redevelop,” says Ryer. “There’s really been a process to get them in competent hands.”
The fact that the Haussner’s property sat vacant for more than 10 years is less a testament to a lack of interest and more a sign of the careful consideration Highlandtown took to make sure that the right developer came, one that would respect the soul of the culturally rich neighborhood.
“None of us want this to be a transition to something inauthentic or corporate,” Snyder says. “We want to make sure that this is forever a diverse, friendly, accessible place to live.”
This sentiment was on full display during a block party on a warm day in May. In classic fashion, the party was all about local groups coming together to transform a block. The Highlandtown Business Association wanted to clean up the alley, Healthy Harbor Initiative wanted to put up a mural and educate students about the environment, and Highlandtown Main Street was game for all of it.
So they all threw a party on the 3500 block of Eastern Avenue to celebrate a new mural—depicting the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay.
With the vivid waterway as the backdrop, kids played on kayaks while parents drank margaritas and a mariachi band played in the background.
“There’s a heart in Highlandtown,” Cruz says. “And Highlandtown is in my heart.”