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Charm City Endures Ups and Downs With Head Held High

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Welcome to CityScapes, a column in which we explore some of the nation's oft-overlooked cities and towns: their local history and real estate offerings. Have a suggestion? Do let us know.

Baltimore, thanks to television programs like The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street, has been painted as one of America's most troubled cities, wracked by poverty and drug use. And, well, it certainly is. In 2006, the city reported 184 instances of fatal heroin overdoses alone, and the ensuing drug-related gang violence—to the tune of more than 200 homicides per year—has ravaged sections of the city, some of which count more vacant homes per block than inhabited. But Baltimore is also a study in contrasts, as block upon block of vacants give way to renovated townhouses, stately squares, and the first planned suburb in the United States, still going strong. Meanwhile, the relatively low cost of living has drawn a cadre of artists and musicians into the urban grit at the city's core, helping to revitalize previously forlorn districts. The modern Baltimore is a city defined both by past fortunes and misfortune, and, like the library at the Peabody Institute (above), much of the beauty is on the inside.

THE BACKSTORY:

Settled by British colonials in the early 18th century, Baltimore rose to prominence as a port and thrived during the age of shipping, first by supplying vital food crops to the Caribbean sugarcane plantations, then later as a crucial link between seafaring commerce and the burgeoning railroads, made possible by the superbly protected harbor (above). Baltimore's prominent economic status meant that its wealthy citizens were among the richest in the country during the 19th century, enabling the construction of elaborate mansions and architectural marvels. Architects Benjamin Latrobe and John Russell Pope both were active in the city, and the Old Baltimore Shot Tower was the tallest structure in the United States from its construction in 1828 until 1846. For much of its first 200 years, Baltimore was a thriving center of industry and trade. But the rosy outlook for Baltimore took a turn for the worse in the 20th century as racial tensions, rioting, and declining local industry combined to turn much of Baltimore into a decrepit slum. In the 1980s and 90s, urban renewal efforts, like the revamping of the Inner Harbor (below), helped to bring business—and a more substantial tax base—back to Baltimore. Tourist attractions like the National Aquarium have also helped the retail economy recover, though world-renowned Johns Hopkins Hospital remains the city's largest employer.

WHAT'S ON THE MARKET NOW:

? The downturn in Baltimore's fortunes has meant that the glorious homes of Baltimore's patrician past are now trading for a fraction of what they might in Washington, D.C., or NYC. The neighborhood of Mount Vernon, located just north of the Inner Harbor, was once home to Baltimore's merchant moguls and now hosts several of the city's major cultural institutions, like the Walters Art Museum and the Peabody Institute. Across from the magnificent Beaux Arts facade of the Peabody campus lies this detached brick townhouse. While not the grandest on the square, at $2.45M, this stately home—with six bedrooms and a carriage house—costs less than half of what a comparable home in Georgetown or Greenwich Village might.

? On the northern reaches of Baltimore lies the neighborhood of Roland Park, America's first planned suburb, which initially featured streetcar service to downtown. That handy feature might be gone, but the substantial homes remain. For just under $1M, this renovated home has modern creature comforts with the quaint authenticity of yesteryear mixed in among the five bedrooms and 5.5 baths.

? As one might expect, things start to get truly affordable when the search extends out of the traditionally ritzy areas. Federal Hill, which has more recently become popular with the post-college and professional set, lies just south of the Inner Harbor in the vicinity of Fort McHenry. For $217K, this two-bedroom brick rowhouse, distinctly Baltimore and thankfully devoid of the common Formstone facade, lies just a few hundred yards from the harbor where Francis Scott Key penned the national anthem.

· Mount Vernon Square [Sotheby's]
· 117 Beechdale [Redfin]
· 539 E. Gittings Street [Eric Figurelle]