"What made you want to move to Pigtown?" Everyone who meets someone new to Pigtown asks the same question. Mostly because we can't always remember our reasons after sweeping trash, pulling weeds, and putting our blood, sweat, and tears into this neighborhood. At the end of the day, it's home and we love it. But we want to be able to tell other people these reasons so that they can join the fun. We love making new friends. We have happy hours and BBQs. I swear, it's not all work. I've met neighbors who will absolutely be in my life forever. I can't believe I lived without them until now. So before I forget, here's my story.
I chose Pigtown because it looked like all of the cars on the street were in working order. That’s it. That was ultimately my measuring stick. There are a lot more factors, of course, but if you’re trying to get to the meat of the issue, there it is.
When I first started looking for a house to buy, I was full of wonder and hope. A friend, who I work with often, referred me to a real estate agent. This turned out to be a huge advantage for speaking honestly with each other about homes and locations because agents are typically bound by a code of conduct that restricts them from telling you things that might cause you not to buy that home, but since we were friends that code went out the window. We worked together to find out what I could afford. They would approve me for a loan on a house that cost about $120,000 in Baltimore City, or $140,000 in Baltimore County. These numbers made the wonder and hope fade quickly.
In Baltimore County, $140,000 doesn’t go very far. Anywhere that I thought would be cool was out of my price range. However, $120,000 in Baltimore City went so far that I didn’t know what to do with my excitement. I was an avid reader of blogs, and was pumped with a completely unrealistic level of confidence in my ability to DIY an entire house. If you are excellent at home repairs, interior architecture, and enjoy making it all happen with your blood, sweat, and tears, Baltimore City is your playground. You can own anything all of the way up to a mansion-sized home for $120,000. Granted, it might not be convenient to needed amenities, it might need a lot of repairs, and it probably has some serious structural issues.
When I realized that I was bound by the rules of FHA loans (which is you, if you plan to put less than 20% down), I was told that I would have to buy something that was livable on day 1 of move-in. The selection went down drastically, but in an achievable kind of way. So I made my list of dreams & requirements, and began looking around.
My list looked something like this, below. You’ll notice that the location was the most important thing. This is because you can change the house any way you want, but you can’t move it. It’s not going anywhere.
Requirements: Close to public transit to get around the City. Close to Rt 70 or Rt 95, at the Southern end of Baltimore, to get to work. Close to a grocery to get necessities. Close to a park to walk the dogs and have fun. Located in an area that people cared about. Close to things to do. Not next to the train tracks, which are annoyingly loud at 5am on a weekend. Somewhere that had active community groups – but not so well-established that they have too much help, and no room for me to join. A back yard that faces south in order to get optimal sun for gardening. Somewhere for me and guests to park that is near the home.
Dreams: Hardwood floors. Roof deck. Full basement. All rooms to be full height, including basement if it has daily necessities. Room to have a guest stay over. Open stairwell. Exposed Brick. Something that doesn’t need so much work that I wouldn’t be able to find a roommate to help pay the bills. Natural light (not the beer, though that would be an added bonus if it was waiting for me in the fridge). Gas stove for cooking gloriousness. Gas heat for money savings. Efficient appliances for more money savings. At least 2 full bathrooms because this is my house damnit, I don’t want to share.
My list of dreams and requirements, when joined with what I could afford, led to a pretty quick answer. Up-and-coming neighborhoods. These are the neighborhoods that are still in transition, and at first glance, might turn some people off – not just sexually, but also safetily (that’s not a word… eh, it is now). I drove around many of these neighborhoods, and quickly ruled them out. I had a friend who would be showing art at the Artdromeda event in Pigtown, so I went along with him to talk to the guy running the whole event. He told me that Pigtown was a nice place to live, with a delicious Chinese Restaurant, and an elementary school that had just won a Blue Ribbon for excellence. Well, hell! I can do that! So I talked to my friend who showed his art, and to my real estate agent about the area.
I had made a pact with my agent that she was not supposed to let me live anywhere that she wouldn’t have her own child live. She said it passed the test, but warned me that Baltimore can vary street by street, and that there were a couple streets she was weary of in the area, though all areas have that. My artist friend told me that the area was going through some commercial revitalization. That they were concentrating business development along Washington Boulevard’s 700-900 blocks. Businesses sound awesome. I like having places to go, and being able to walk to get to what I need. That means more free time, no designated driver, saving money on gas, and a little fresh air. He also told me that there was a sculpture garden that had been done recently. "Double awesome. I want to be near that." I researched, and saw many active volunteer groups in the area – Friends of Carroll Park, Pigtown Main Street, Citizens of Pigtown, and others.
So I looked around at what was for sale. Some places were super old. Some were completely rehabbed at rock bottom prices. Some were even split into apartments, ready to be an investment property. Some were three stories. Some were two stories.
I found a rehabbed house for sale, in the 1100 block of Sargeant. Carroll Park on one end. A sculpture garden on the other. One block from the redevelopment along Washington Boulevard. Three minute drive to Rt 95. One mile walk to Downtown Baltimore, or Federal Hill bars. The location was awesome. I drove around and around. I drove by in the morning. I drove by at night. I drove by in the rain. I wanted to check out every possible condition to see how the place hopped. The neighbors must have thought that I was crazy. Many sat out on their stoops, and there was a bar nearby with decent foot traffic. I kept this in mind. The more witnesses around, the less likely that somebody is going to get away with a crime. I refrained from judging the quality of people by their appearances. Instead, I looked at their cars. I looked at how they treated the things that they did own. Looked to see if they cared about whatever car they had enough to keep it running. They did. There were new cars, and old cars, but no flat tires and nothing that look abandoned. So I toured the house, and it was small, but awesome. The house had EVERYTHING that I wanted. I was thrilled.
I will say there is one thing that COMPETELY FREAKED ME OUT. While I was up on the roof deck touring the home, an elderly neighbor yelled out “don’t do it, you’ll be sorry”. I wasn’t sure if he was jokingly telling me not to jump, or creepily telling me not to buy the place.
I was a little unsure about my purchase the first couple nights, but I got through them. I set the alarm diligently, even when the door was locked and I was inside. I woke up in the middle of the night to look out the front windows, checking that my car was there, and not broken into. I would walk my dogs, and the neighborhood kids would stop me to pet them, asking every possible question there could be about dogs. All at the same time. After a couple months, I got to know the elderly neighbor who yelled up to me during the house tour from our little talks over the back fence. My conclusion was that he’s a character. Pigtown is full of characters. It’s best not to put too much weight into anything he says, enjoying his company none the less. Come to find out, his sister used to live there before she passed away, and before the home was rehabbed. Truth is, Pigtown isn’t that dangerous. Pigtown is pretty safe - especially if you’re smart about how you conduct yourself and where you keep any valuables. That is just plain street smarts.
Two and a half years later, my house has never been broken into, and neither has my car. My neighbors watch out for me. While it might seem to some like Baltimore is "the big city", Pigtown has a great small town feel. About 4 months ago, my house caught on fire. One neighbor, who had moved in recently and I’d never met, offered me shoes because I had run out of the house quickly in my bare feet. Another neighbor, who didn’t have much to offer, swore that I could stay on her couch as long as I needed. Still another offered to water my plants out front to make sure they wouldn’t die while the house was being repaired. While I don’t expect anyone to kick me while I’m down, I didn’t really expect their humble generosity either. Not that they are mean people or anything… everyone on my block treats me with civility. I just really appreciated their help, and would never have asked for it myself.
I am grateful. They cared for their cars enough to keep them going. And so, they’ve cared for me too.