Bolton Hill: Engaged Urban Living
Welcome to our new series “Neighborhood Watch,” which reveals the character of a city neighborhood through the eyes of residents who live there. All photos by Tyler Merbler.
It was a damp February Friday and I was out of breath by the time I reached Mount Royal Tavern. I had just missed the Circulator downtown and didn’t have the luxury of waiting 20 minutes for the next one, so I huffed it north, hoping I wouldn’t be too late to meet up at The Mount Royal Tavern with Bolton Hill residents Kevin and Sarah Cross. Kevin and I met through a mutual friend and through the wonders of Facebook and Twitter, I learned that Kevin has a wealth of knowledge of all things Baltimore. On social media, he’d comment on the history of the city, upcoming festivals, or anything and everything going on around town. When I decided to highlight neighborhoods in Baltimore through the eyes of quintessential residents, I knew he and his wife Sarah would be the perfect place to start.
This was my first visit to the Mount Royal Tavern; it was everything I desire from a bar. Cash only. Old men tending bar. An elderly patron calling me her shield from unsolicited advances. The bartenders are heavy on the whiskey in their whiskey sodas, which pretty much cinched MRT for me. It was like Club Charles if they had exchanged all the hipsters for quirky lifetime locals and replaced the art deco decor with absurd, ever-changing art, like the erotica-themed pieces that lined the walls that night.
Sarah and Kevin moved to Bolton Hill about ten years ago and praised its schools, from Midtown Academy, the area charter school, to Mount Royal Elementary, the neighborhood’s public elementary school and the nearby Catholic school, Grace & St. Peter’s in Mt. Vernon, local organizations, fine dining options and so much more.
Live Baltimore describes Bolton Hill as, “an historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is an urban neighborhood of tranquil, tree-lined streets lined with an outstanding collection of restored mid to late 19th century townhouses, urban mansions, churches, and public buildings. Bolton Hill is peppered with quaint urban parks, historic fountains, and grand monuments that complement the period architecture.“
That’s an apt description. Bolton Hill is tree-lined, peaceful, and full of historic architecture from the late 19th century that residents have taken much care to preserve. The Mount Royal Improvement Association (MRIA) is Bolton Hill’s local community association that, according to its bylaws, “[seeks] to preserve the quality of life now present in this area and to continue to make it a cheerful, pleasant, well-ordered place in which to live and work.”
There’s a reason the neighborhood so often plays DC’s swanky Georgetown in films and TV shows. The MRIA takes its task of keeping the neighborhood pristine seriously. Liquor licenses are monitored, new neighbors are welcomed with a packet and a party, and home improvement plans approved…or not.
Sarah, who has lived with Kevin in Bolton Hill for nearly ten years, is a former board member with the MRIA and still is involved in groups important to the beautification of the neighbor, like the Bolton Hill Garden Club. “It is not your mother’s garden club,” she said. Neither stuffy nor social, the team of volunteers act as amateur botanists and architectural historians with a earnest eye toward keeping the neighborhood beautiful and preventing it from falling into disrepair like so much of Baltimore. The Bolton Hill Garden Club is one of the critical players that ensures that the neighborhood lives up to its full aesthetic potential by regularly planting in neighborhood parks and playing an active role in keeping community gardens, like the medians on Eutaw St. or the Confederate Memorial, at their best.
Bolton Hill is punctuated by churches. Corpus Christi, the neighborhood Catholic Church, is at Mount Royal and Lafayette. Brown Memorial Presbyterian is in the heart of the neighborhood on the 1300 block of Park Avenue. Memorial Episcopal is also snuggled in the center on Lafayette, and Strawbridge Methodist is on the corner of McMechen and Eutaw Place. The now-defunct Fulton Avenue Baptist church is where Sarah’s grandfather, a pastor from Cuba, once preached to his parishioners. It hearkens back to days past, when people wore their Sunday best and sat still in stiff pews to listen to the preacher. Bolton Hill doesn’t do Sunday the way Hampden does Sunday; there are no lines for brunch or hangovers being nursed. Bolton Hill still goes to church, or supports its neighbors who do.
To me, being within a decent proximity of a variety of food options is paramount. Kevin and Sarah offered a few local gems: The Bolton Deli has convienient sandwiches and snacks, On the Hill is Kevin’s favorite place to pick up a freshly baked baguette, and both agreed that with B Bistro (known just as “b”), owned by Qayum Karzai, the owner of Tapas Teatro and The Helmand, and the elder brother of the Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai, just a few blocks away, they rarely find a reason to leave the neighborhood for fine dining.
Because Bolton Hill is more of a family-oriented neighborhood, as opposed to its neighbors Station North and Mount Vernon, it doesn’t really have a bar scene. Mount Royal Tavern (they can’t be bothered with a website, but here’s the Yelp page) may technically be in Bolton Hill, but it doesn’t serve as strictly a neighborhood bar. If you find yourself in Bolton Hill and are looking for a rowdier nightlife scene than chatting up the bartender about something quintessentially Baltimore, then look elsewhere. Station North’s The Depot is a few blocks away, or you can just take a cab to Fells Point or Federal Hill.
Safety coming home from a night out, or really general safety, is sadly still a concern anywhere in Baltimore. Sarah told me about an attempted rape that occurred around the corner from their house on February 16th around 3:00am. Luckily, a neighbor scared off the perpetrator, but it serves as a reminder of the importance of vigilance in the city. Midtown Community Benefits District offers safety escorts to anyone who may feel unsafe walking in the area, but she was honestly disappointed at how seemingly nonexistent the advertising campaign has been. (For a safety escort, either on foot or by car, at any hour of the day, call 410-746-3782.) The Crosses both noted that in the past decade, a growing MICA security presence has greatly benefited the neighborhood, offering safety and patrols to both students and local residents, definitely providing peace of mind for young parents like themselves. Being able to walk around your neighborhood by yourself, or especially with your child, makes a world of difference to the quality of urban life.
Regardless of the occasional instance of violence, Kevin and Sarah made me rethink my Midtown lifestyle. Their beautiful 19th century row house is full of history and romance. My neighborhood, on the other hand, was used to film Zoe’s dingy apartment in House of Cards. Bolton Hill is where Francis (Kevin Spacey’s character) and Claire’s (Robin Wright’s character) house is located on the Netflix series. Sarah was even an extra on the show, walking her and Kevin’s Scottish terrier, Cecil.
Bolton Hill seems like a civilized wonderland in the midst of urban chaos. Residents there have a garden club, a Swim and Tennis Club, and a renowned charter school. Neighbors look out for one another, it’s family-oriented, the few restaurants are high-caliber, and it’s conveniently located. “I can have a unified life experience,” said Kevin, explaining how his proximity to the office means he does not have to sacrifice time with his family for time commuting.
I am the first to admit that I am woefully under-informed on the pros and cons of buying versus renting in the city, mainly because I am a renter with no imminent plans to buy. (It isn’t for lack of available information: Live Baltimore and the city website offer tons of information for potential buyers.) But if Kevin were my advisor, I’d be discouraged from buying. Despite his love of the neighborhood, Kevin wouldn’t buy a house in the city today. Annual property taxes, he said, were too high and would dissuade him from making that kind of financial commitment and obligation. Still, both he and Sarah wholeheartedly agreed that if they had to move they wouldn’t give up the quality-of-life of city living for lower taxes in the county. The Crosses would rather rent in the city than own in the county…high praise for Bolton Hill.
After spending an evening with Kevin and Sarah hearing their stories, the affection in their voices as they spoke of their neighbors, the friends they’ve made and the small businesses they frequent in Bolton Hill, I realized that it’s the people who make a great neighborhood. It’s like Sarah said, “Baltimore is a big small town. It’s the people that set it apart from other cities, and we wouldn’t want to leave.” I can see why.
Correction: Sarah’s other grandfather, not from Cuba, was the pastor of Fulton Avenue Baptist.