Beyond the Laurel Park racetrack on Whiskey Bottom Road stands a tiny white house that Maria Bacon, a freed slave, left to her daughter. The women of Bacontown still call it Maria Bacon's House.
Shortly after she was freed in 1860, Bacon founded this community for her children and their children. It grew into a hamlet of three dozen houses and trailers and a little white church, an isolated spot that 10 years ago had no mail delivery or public water and sewer service. Farm animals roamed the rutted roads of this Anne Arundel County community.
There have been hardships: In the early days, children attended a tiny school that lacked full services. In 1950, a cross burning terrified residents. The 1980s brought drug dealers and prostitutes. In the 1990s, suburban development arrived at its edge.
When the women of Bacontown found their community in trouble, their grit and patience and perseverance rescued Maria Bacon's legacy from neglect, crime and encroaching development.
"It was a mess," said community matriarch Lenore Carter. "We didn't have any choice."
Behind the neighborhood's resurgence are strong women such as Audrey Garnett and Carter, longtime residents who mobilized to drive out drug dealers and bring in young families, and community development officials such as Kathleen Koch, who found grants to clean up the community, bring in running water and buy land before developers did. And a young generation of Bacontown daughters, including the civic association's president, Stephanie Hatchett, who rose from welfare to a career, from public housing to a home she owns.
As affordable housing vanishes in the region, plowed under for development or torn down as blight, the story of Bacontown offers hope and insight into preserving other small places where the memories go back generations and the patron saint might still have an address.
All the hardships that Bacontown endured were dwarfed, said Garnett, by the great bonds of family, faith and community.
"There is no place like Bacontown," she said, pausing in her sunny ranch house with red shutters, next door to Maria Bacon's House.
Garnett, 57, a warm, charming woman who works in the personnel office at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, described her childhood here in idyllic terms. "This was the country. Chickens, animals . . . fruit trees. In summertime, we had blackberries," she said.
Her husband, William, who works at a car dealership, grew up two doors down. After they married in the 1960s, they left Bacontown for a while, lured by apartment life in nearby Laurel. "We went to the city, where they had running water," she said.
Less than a decade later, they were back. They wanted their three children to grow up among friends and family.
They were too busy to notice the first signs of trouble. As the neighborhood began to decay and the crack epidemic raged, crime found a foothold.
Garnett remembers a co-worker approaching her in the early 1980s: "Audrey, I think your neighborhood is on TV," she told her. There had been a major drug bust in the community's park. County officials closed it, but the drugs didn't go away. They moved deeper into the neighborhood.
Garnett turned to her longtime neighbor, Carter, who had worked to set up Head Start programs and civic organizations in underserved communities. Carter had established a civic association in Bacontown a decade before and had led a grass-roots effort to open the park as developers were eyeing the land.
Carter knew that Bacontown residents would be wary of seeking assistance. The prevailing attitude, she said, was, "Nobody ever came to help us. Why would they do it now?"
But she had her own thought on that. "My theory was nobody helps you if you don't get up and help yourself," she said.
Carter and Garnett started driving to Annapolis to meet county officials, seeking help with bringing water services to the hamlet and fighting blight and crime.
Koch, a community development administrator, was struck by their determination. On her first visit to Bacontown, she was frightened for her safety. Drug dealers and prostitutes operated freely on the streets.
She told Garnett and Carter that the work could take years. "The first thing we did," said Koch, "we had a cleanup."
With $25,000 from the county, the community spent two days hauling away abandoned trailers that harbored criminal activity, old cars, trash.
Residents held meetings with the county police. They took tag numbers and made hundreds of calls to report suspicious activity.
Carter, 75, relishes the fact that she confronted some of the offenders face to face. "I guess I was a terror, come to think of it," she recalled. "I'm surprised somebody didn't beat me up."
Her late husband, Cornelius, told her to be careful. But she insisted on making herself militantly obvious. "I used to walk from here to the church. Once you stop making yourself visible, you can forget it. That's when trouble takes over. You go in the house and shut the door, you get a whole lot of neighbors you don't want."
Crime began to recede: Between 1990 and 1992, police received 1,300 calls for service in Bacontown. In the past two years, they responded 125 times.
Even as the neighbors struggled on, development was advancing. By the early 1990s, county water and sewer lines were extended to accommodate the multimillion-dollar Russett development, with more than 3,700 upscale homes and apartments, less than a mile up Whiskey Bottom Road.
Using $1 million in state and federal funds, Bacontown finally got water and sewer service from those lines.
But the march of progress was a double-edged sword, Koch said.
She had seen other communities disappear in the face of development pressure. Longtime residents, many of them retired, would need help to keep from being priced out of their community.
Many homes needed serious renovation and had to be brought up to code before they could be connected to the public amenities. Some residents had simply parked trailers or built homes on family land but lacked clear titles to the property. Koch and her staff helped them sift through old wills and public records to establish their claims.
About the same time, Koch's county office became the nonprofit Arundel Community Development Services Inc. The new organization had more flexibility, Koch said.
With about $450,000 in state and federal housing rehabilitation funds, the nonprofit group helped 19 needy homeowners repair their homes. Then, in 1998, the agency used about $2 million in local, state and federal money to buy nine vacant properties and build affordable housing for eight families whose members had once lived in Bacontown or whose parents had. Another house was built by Arundel Habitat for Humanity.
Through it all, Mount Zion United Methodist Church was an agent of sustenance and change. No longer needing to provide to the community a basic service such as water from its pump, the church now offers outreach and youth ministries, marriage counseling and "drug deliverance" programs. The Rev. R. David Hall, a District resident and former D.C. school board president, made it his mission to get deeply involved, Koch said.
Hatchett, the civic association president, took homeownership classes at the church before returning to Bacontown in 2001. Raised in a mobile home with six siblings by a widowed mother, Hatchett lived for a while in public housing in Severn.
Then she had a baby and decided to change her life. She became a nursing assistant and later got married. When she heard about houses being built in Bacontown, she applied. She and her husband, Kevin, who works for a delivery service, saved for a down payment.
Now, with the help of leadership training and neighbors she has known from childhood, Hatchett is heading the civic association.
On a recent Sunday, the Mount Zion congregation celebrated Women's Day. The female members arrived at the little white church dressed in brilliant shades of red, except for Carter, who wore the crisp white blouse and the blue pillbox hat of an usher.
The church's male chorus sang "I've got my mind made up -- to serve the Lord."
And Hall delivered a short message in praise of the enduring strength of women, around the world and in Bacontown.
"When God finds a job that a man can't handle," said Hall, "he sends a woman."
The way Hatchett sees it, the women of Bacontown have Maria Bacon to thank.
"I can look out my kitchen window and see Maria Bacon's House," she said. "That was a strong black woman. I strive to be like her. I know Lenore Carter strives to be like her. The women in this community strive to be bigger, better women. She left a legacy for us."