We don’t call them townhouses in Baltimore. Townhouses exist in Georgetown or the other tony sections of D.C., just like brownstones fill certain blocks of New York City.
In fact, here in Charm City “townhouses” are found in the farm fields-turned-suburbs, waiting stations for homeowners with single family home aspirations.
Rowhouses are what the rest of us live in.
“Mary Poppins houses” a friend of mine called them when she once visited Baltimore. Dorm living for grownups is how I sometimes refer to them.
I live in a rowhouse, an end unit that shares a wall with one other on a corner that nearly all the kids in the neighborhood bisect, traipsing over my lawn as they make their way to school each morning, laden with backpacks and trombones and soccer balls.
A rowhouse that is the mirror image of the house next door, stairway on the right as you walk in, living room to the left. And so they alternate on my block, each house the reflection of the one next to it, five houses in all.
One floor up, one floor down, plus a finished basement — three bedrooms total — and an attic I can reach by pulling down a ladder in the upstairs hallway ceiling. Simple and sweet. No mystery. Especially since every other house in the neighborhood looks exactly like mine, and the rest are echos.
We are packed in neat and tidy in this suburb that was built in the ’20s and now feels much more metropolitan, just an extension of the city whose line is actually a few blocks south.
In the summer, the kids play in the alley, thwacking plastic bats and whizzing around on roller blades. My son learned to toss a football in the alley while my daughter likes to use the alley for the walk and talk, gossiping and giggling with a teenager who is one year older.
As both of my kids have gotten older, they have started to use the fields across the street for impromptu soccer games and foot races. The thing about living here is that there is nearly always somebody to play with.
In the winter, the kids sled on the fields and the adults shovel snow together and walk to Starbucks for a warm-up. And Halloween is as much a parent’s holiday as it is a kid’s as we gather around the front lawn fire pits with glasses of wine. At our feet are the buckets of candy for the trick-or-treaters.
My grandparents bought my house in 1941 and had it paid off by the end of the war. My grandfather was a steelworker who helped build battleships, so the money was easy to earn then. He grew up on a farm in southern Virginia, but my grandmother was born in Baltimore – in a rowhouse on ParkHeights – and lived all of her life in a rowhouse.
In fact, she died in one — this one, as a matter of fact, which is something that I try not to think about too much. The house sat vacant for two years before my children and I moved into it in 2007. I bought it a year later from my parents.
The kitchen still has the 1940s Chamber stove and the basement the original asbestos tile floor, although I am hoping to cover it this summer with new flooring. Oh yeah, I have the original kitchen cabinets, too, with the silver colored handles. Likewise the black and white checkerboard bathroom tile.
If you grew up on the East Coast, you know exactly what I am talking about.
Regularly I think about demolishing the wall between the kitchen and the dining room, and sometimes I fantasize about an addition off the back. But then sometimes I think about the single family house that is awaiting me one day, a house that is more horizontal than vertical on a space much more private than my corner lot. We’ll see. For now, I’m here.
Shortly after I bought the house, I was putting together a will and I told my lawyer that if I ever sold the house I wanted to offer it to my family first.
He was perplexed. “There is nothing special, nothing extraordinary about your house,” he said. “It’s a rowhouse.”
Yes, it’s a rowhouse. Solid and steady. And predictable and look-alike. But it’s also cozy and funky and contemporary – Remember McMansions? Yeah, we’ve forgotten about them, too – and it’s community-oriented. A rowhouse is a great place to raise a kid.
Most importantly, it’s home.