BALTIMORE -- Highlandtown, the blue-collar enclave in East Baltimore where a black man was hit by a truck in a recent racial incident, is as much a state of mind as it is a piece of geography.
"I call Highlandtown heaven," said Nicholas D'Adamo Jr., 32, a member of the Baltimore City Council who represents the area. "Everybody knows everybody. People wave."
The racial incident? That was a fluke, he said, that won't happen again. Not in Highlandtown.
Highlandtown is a classic Baltimore neighborhood: white marble steps, painted window screens, narrow turn-of-the-century row houses occupied by generations of working-class Italian, Polish, German and Irish ethnic families.
Yuppies and gentrification have not come to Highlandtown. Some houses have been in the same family since the turn of the century. Those that sell go for $40,000 to $55,000 apiece.
There is nothing like it in Washington.
It is a place that, if not frozen in time, has slowed its pace, where children wear parochial school uniforms, where Mass is said in Italian daily at Our Lady of Pompei Church, where the same beat police officer has been walking the streets for 42 years, and where a few elderly blacks still refer to themselves as "colored." And it is a place marked by its independence, with residents remembering the community's efforts to fight annexation into the city at the turn of the century by frequently referring to the rest of Baltimore as West Highlandtown.
Some say the close-knit character of Highlandtown has a downside. Its insularity sometimes translates into racism, which has created fears among blacks who visit the community.
"They just look at you like you're not supposed to be here" was the way one black woman described it as she folded her clothes in a Highlandtown coin laundry recently.
Although few blacks live there, many pass through every day, stopping at bus transfer points. Still others work or shop in Highlandtown -- as did Herbert Jennings, the 38-year-old restaurant employee spotted by a group of whites the evening of July 19 as he walked with his white girlfriend near Eastern Avenue, Highlandtown's main commercial strip.
Taunted and threatened, he was chased into the path of a pickup truck and severely injured. He remains in critical condition at the University of Maryland Medical System's Shock Trauma Center. Police charged Daniel Porter, 21, of nearby Canton, with assault in the incident. An investigation is continuing.
Some whites from the neighborhood said afterward that Jennings was asking for trouble by dating a white woman. Whites can be pro-civil rights, they said, but not condone interracial dating or marriages. Others, such as D'Adamo and longtime beat police Officer John P. Boyter, said that the incident was an aberration and that race relations in Highlandtown are good and have been for generations.
"It was a case of the wrong guy in the wrong place," said Boyter, 68, who with 42 years on the force is among the longest-tenured police officers in the city.
He said Jennings and his girlfriend have walked the streets of Highlandtown for years and never had a violent run-in.
Of the assailants, he said, "You get a bad apple in the barrel now and again . . . . They were probably drinking a little and looking for trouble, not exactly racial trouble, just any kind of trouble, and they came up on" Jennings.
"There's never been a problem here," D'Adamo said.
"This is a good community," said D'Adamo's father, Nicholas Sr., who has been running businesses in Highlandtown for 52 years. Owner of a cut-rate general merchandise store called Shocket's on Eastern Avenue, he said, "Blacks have been shopping here for years."
"Basically we mind our business and they mind theirs," said Joe Ragen, 66, owner for 28 years of a tavern down the street from Shocket's.
"I could care less if a colored guy goes with a white girl, or vice versa," Ragen said.
Down in the 900 block of Baylis Street stands Highlandtown's only predominantly black section, a block of aging row houses where black families have lived in harmony with surrounding whites at least since World War I, according to residents.
"We've been like one big family," said Montine Shearill. "We never had no trouble."
But in recent years, said other residents, the neighborhood has declined. Older black homeowners have died or moved away, leaving houses that are now being rented, mostly by whites.
"The street was always mixed," said Fred Wilson, 77, a black retired crane operator, "but it's less colored here now."
Andrew Pruchniewski, 66, Wilson's white neighbor across the street, agreed, bemoaning the loss of black families.
"By Christ, I wish they were back," he said. "The renters don't care . . . . The quality of life has gone down 65 to 70 percent."
Baylis Street may be emblematic of a subtle shift that is slowly affecting all of Highlandtown. The immigrant waves that populated Highlandtown in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are gradually loosening their grip, as the city's industrial base declines and the younger generations look to the suburbs.
"In the old days," said John Muldowney, 65, a lifelong Highlandtown resident, "the pattern was for the Catholic ethnics to cluster around their churches" -- the Poles around St. Casimir's, the Irish around St. Brigid's, the Germans around Sacred Heart, the Italians around Our Lady of Pompei.
"If you were Italian, you married an Italian, and so on," Muldowney said. "But that pattern is starting to break up now."
"I grew up three blocks from St. Brigid's," said the Rev. Richard Poetzel, 53, "but I went to Sacred Heart 10 blocks away because it was considered the 'German' church." Poetzel is now pastor of Sacred Heart.
While there has been some suburban flight and inter-ethnic marriages, he said, "this is an extremely stable neighborhood. Many of the people I grew up with are still here."
A few blocks away at Our Lady of Pompei, the Rev. Louis Trotta, 65, who grew up in the Italian neighborhood around the church, said its ethnic identity is still "largely intact," although the second- and third-generation Italian families there now "don't have the same solidarity" as the first.
"Some families have moved out," Trotta said, "but then some have come back. It's a comfortable, known place."