Monday, February 7, 2011

Case Study 2.2: Charles Village

Charles Village is not one of Baltimore's hot spots, nor does it attract a particularly affluent crowd. What the neighborhood does do effectively, however, is create a community feel among its inhabitants. For that it was named a Great Neighborhood in 2008 by the American Planning Association as part of their Great Places in America initiative. Charles Village owes much of its vitality to the presence of John Hopkins University on its western border, one of the most renowned universities in the country. Many students and professors live in the neighborhood. Just south of the university is the Baltimore Museum of Art, home to the world's largest collection of Matisse paintings and open to the public for free. Bordering these two institutions is the Wyman Park Dell, designed by the Olmsted brothers and popular with walkers and joggers. The neighborhood is bordered by the university on its western edge,  E 33rd Street to the north, Guildford Avenue east, and 25th Street south. Sometimes the area below 25th Street is included but generally speaking that area has an entirely different character and is sometimes called South Charles Village or Old Goucher. Travelling down Charles Street, downtown is about 2 miles away. 

Charles Village was founded in the late 19th century as a streetcar suburb, with long plots of land  sold to various developers. Thought to be one of the first examples of tract housing, the result is streets with homes in the same style, proceeded by a street with an entirely different style. While this may have been slightly odd when first constructed, today heavy vegetation masks the similarities. One of the unique things about the neighborhood in recent times is the creation of a community benefits district funded by a small addition to property taxes and pays for increased security and sanitation services. Since the district came into place in 1994, crime has halved. In 1998 the neighborhood launched a competition for most colorful home, hence the bright colors found on many homes. A block of rowhomes on Guilford Avenue is perhaps the most famous of these, locally referred to as "Painted Ladies" in reference to colorful Victorian homes in San Francisco.

The back-to-back comparison with Bolton Hill is interesting as many people do the same before deciding which of the neighborhoods to move to. Bolton Hill is slightly more expensive and closer to downtown and Penn Station, but it's closer to crime-ridden areas of the city and has less amenities. The proximity to John Hopkins University definitely creates a college town atmosphere in Charles Village, which many recent graduates are keen to hold on to after graduating. To me the stately rowhomes in Bolton Hill have an elegance that Charles Village can't match, but I can certainly see why the choice between the two comes down to personal preference. 

One consideration with Charles Village is that it's not universally pleasant. It's quite rough around the edges, neglected homes, etc., especially towards the south of the neighborhood. Often just crossing the street into the next block can feature drastically different states, easily discernible by the quality of cars out front. And it almost goes without saying that the back alleys where many residents have garages are in a sad state. The neighborhood is aligned along its north-south axis and all the east-west streets are forgettable. I highly dislike suburbs, but showing someone those east-west streets is a sure way to get them to clear out. European cities are far more successful in presenting a unified front which includes their back alleys.

One of Charles Village's greatest disadvantages is the business of its streets, Charles and St. Paul Streets in particular, both one ways which are the main north-south streets into and out of downtown are always busy. Add to that the fact that the roads are quite wide and you have a problem. See the video in one of my previous posts. Charles Village is not the kind of neighborhood I could see kids playing in the streets. 

One of the neighborhood's selling points back in the day was marketing it as a sort of halfway suburb, hence the relatively long front lawns, but paired with the wide roads this large setback weakens the streets' community feel. The glue that binds both sides of the street as a single entity is pretty weak. You may have noticed that the images above rarely take in both sides of the street, due to the sheer distance between the two sides. It's more like a face off, one side of homes against the other rather than a whole. I wonder how much of the need for a community benefits district was as a result of the lack of community inherit in the streetscape. To touch again on the front lawns, they're nice when properly taken care of and full of vegetation, but like a chasm when just a bit of grass. 

The appeal of Charles Village is obvious. Plenty of nice affordable rowhomes, close to John Hopkins University, tree-lined streets, and amenities nearby. Sure the "Painted Ladies" are rather kitsch, but to residents it's an outward sign that they don't take themselves too seriously. The serious efforts the neighborhood has taken to build a community are great, as this pride has guaranteed that homes are maintained better than they otherwise would be. I think there are plenty of examples of great streetscapes here.