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Remaking Highlandtown, One Building (and One Business) at a Time

Developer Joseph Schultz in the Highlandtown neighborhood of Baltimore - Arianne Teeple
Developer Joseph Schultz in the Highlandtown neighborhood of Baltimore - Arianne Teeple
East of Fells Point, north of Canton. Southeast of Butchers Hill and right by Patterson Park. In the city but off to the side. No secret to those who live and work there, but lacking in the kind of destination cachet enjoyed by some of the city's more recognizable neighborhoods. It's something of a mystery.

It, of course, is Highlandtown.

The Highlandtown Community Association refers to the neighborhood as "the heart of Baltimore," and there's something to be said for that. Maybe not geographically speaking but more so in character. Like many parts of the city it wears a faded, old blue collar, yet the post-industrial economy has given rise to the challenge of redefinition. What is a neighborhood when the industries that provided its residents with work disappear?

Easy to look back and remember what a place was, far harder to imagine five years ahead to what it might be.

Joseph Schultz, principal of Schultz Development, is working to make the future tangible.

A self-described "street kid" who grew up in Dundalk, the 52-year old Schultz has always been connected to Highlandtown. His father's side of the family has roots there going back generations, and when Schultz was a boy the neighborhood was a prime destination for shopping and entertainment. His goal now is to help bring back "that good bustle of folks" that signals a thriving neighborhood.

He got his start roughly fifteen years ago by rehabbing homes in Butchers Hill. "The reason I started [there]," he says, "is because of Johns Hopkins." The young professionals employed by the hospital represented a natural demographic for Schultz, who built his business servicing people on the front end of the live-where-you-work trend.

"It's here, there's no question about it. We're not guessing -- they are here," Schultz says. He's also quick to point out that in recent years he's seen more and more of them start families and choose to stay in the neighborhood rather than flee to the supposedly more welcoming arms of the suburbs.

Recognizing in that trend a potential for something more substantial than just house-by-house progress, Schultz is now in the process of turning his focus to commercial projects.

He started by putting down roots of his own with an office building on Eastern Avenue -- the neighborhood's "main street" -- across from the old Haussner's Restaurant building and down the street from the Creative Alliance. Schultz also lives in the area and, having recently had his own child, feels a vested personal interest in its future.

One of the first commercial projects on his plate is a partnership with Benjamin Walsh, co-founder of Innovate Baltimore, who recently launched a video game startup called Pure Bang Games.

Together they harbor a vision of redeveloping the landmark former Boys and Girls Club building into a mixed-use facility featuring artists' space, office space, and a gallery and restaurant on the first floor.

"I want it to be alive," Schultz says.

He also has designs on picking up other large commercial buildings in the area and populating them similarly. Where once the spaces were cost-prohibitive to acquire, "Now," he says, "with a little bit of luck, and timing, we've been fortunate to where we're getting these very big corner properties that are available."

Noting further that the area is a designated Arts & Entertainment district, he talks about wanting "to bring the arts back" in addition to his broader goal of providing space to grow the commercial and business sectors.

Schultz' business isn't the only one on Eastern Avenue with interest in continued growth. Vitamin, a design and marketing firm, put its own roots down on Higlandtown's main street six years ago. Today, the two companies are next-door neighbors.

According to Vitamin's president and CEO, Amanda Karfakis, who lives in the area with husband and business partner Mike Karfakis, they "saw an opportunity to live in the city...and have a very short commute to work, not having to use an automobile."

Their hope back when they first settled in was that Highlandtown was perhaps only a few years away from a renaissance. Vitamin has continued to grow, but the neighborhood hasn't necessarily kept pace. There has been some progress, but Karfakis shares Schultz' vision -- and hope -- for something even better.

To be sure, the foundation is there. The Creative Alliance hosts engaging programming on a regular basis, and the websites for the Highlandtown Arts and Entertainment District and the area's Merchant's Association show that the neighborhood has plenty to offer. Call it a buzz, if not yet a din.

According to the website of the Baltimore Main Streets Program (an initiative of the Baltimore Development Corporation), the city has ten designated "main streets." They range from the obvious and obviously successful (Hampden, Federal Hill) to the slightly more obscure (Monument Street, Belair-Edison). Highlandtown is one, as well, and today it seems to be somewhere in the middle. Not quite there but ready, perhaps, to take the next step.

In that sense the neighborhood just might be a microcosm of the city as a whole. Heart of Baltimore, indeed. Or one of them, at least.

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Photos by Arianne Teeple

- Developer Joseph Schultz in the Highlandtown neighborhood of Baltimore
- The old Haussner's Restaurant building
- Ben Walsh, co-founder of Innovate Baltimore
- Vitamin branding and public relations firm
- The Creative Alliance at the Patterson in Highlandtown

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