CRM Journal

Book Review

Baltimore's Alley Houses: Homes for Working People since the 1780s

By Mary Ellen Hayward. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008; 307 pp., illustrations; cloth, $45.00.


New York built tenements, walk-up apartments of several stories, with no water and few windows in the inner walls. The conditions in these tenements became scandalous via writers like Jacob Riis in the late 19th century.

Baltimore builders learned to build two- or three-story row houses on the main streets, and tiny row houses on the back streets or alleys. In early Philadelphia and Baltimore, builders erected diminutive two-story versions of the grand Federal houses built for wealthier clients. Often a block was subdivided with the larger houses facing outward and an alley running through the middle with more modest dwellings facing it. By laying out blocks with an alley street down the middle, developers could produce more house lots. Some of the earliest alley dwellings had no backyards but abutted the houses built behind them.

In communities where all but the very wealthy had to walk to work, housing was required for every income level within the same geographic area. Substantial merchants and businessmen could afford large three-story houses on major streets. Shopkeepers, craftsmen, and artisans lived in two-story houses nearby. The laboring classes who did the physical work of the community also had to live nearby, occupying more modest houses, which they rented or sometimes were able to buy. This arrangement continued until the advent of the streetcars in the latter 19th century, when workers were able to live further away from their jobs.

Later alley dwellings had small backyards to accommodate a privy. These small working-class row houses accommodated every wave of emigrant that landed in Baltimore, a large native African American population, and African American emigrants coming up from the south. Large numbers of Irish, German, Bohemian, Polish, Jewish, Italian, and Greek immigrants came through Baltimore. Many of them stayed on to found vibrant ethnic neighborhoods, some of which remain to this day. Poor immigrants occupying back alley houses, through thrift saving clubs, were able to make small down payments on purchasing a row house. As people from these groups moved on to more ample housing, newly arrived immigrants took up their places in old Baltimore neighborhoods. Many neighborhoods revolved around ethnic churches, which had a priest, rabbi, or minister who spoke the native language. Extolling the Baltimore row house, George Washington Howard wrote in 1873, in The Monumental City: Its Past History and Present Resources about Baltimore's "utter absence of tenement-houses, with their squalid wretchedness," where "the humblest mechanic or laborer can ensconce his family in a modest dwelling and surround them with the pleasures and comforts of home."(1)

The Irish arrived in large number to Baltimore during the Potato Famine in 1846-50. Ships would arrive in the Baltimore Harbor with many passengers who had died in the Atlantic Passage. Local Irish helped the famine victims find housing near Union Square in west Baltimore. Luckily, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was developing great guns at that time, and many of the Irish found work digging the roadbed and laying track for the railroad to Cumberland, Maryland and westward. Many of these Irish laborers followed the railroad westward with their families. Many others stayed in Baltimore.

Germans came after the failure of the 1848 German Democratic movement. They established singing societies, bakeries, breweries, and piano factories, adding to the commercial and cultural life of the city. Many Bohemians who came had a high school education and were skilled woodworkers, carvers, cabinetmakers, or tailors. A Bohemian builder, Frank Novak developed the classic Baltimore row house in the early 20th century, with marble basement and marble steps. German Jewish businessmen built grand row houses along Eutaw Place with magnificent new synagogues. The Italians settled in an area near Fells Point still known as Little Italy.

Well-to-do African Americans, often descended from Maryland freedmen, occupied a fashionable neighborhood in the Druid Hill Park area, moving in after German Jewish settlers, who were denied residence in other white neighborhoods. Baltimore neighborhoods became "red lined" restricting Jewish and African Americans from buying property. Blacks had always lived in the Fells Point and Federal Hill neighborhoods, sharing both principle street and alley dwellings with white residents. The influx of southern blacks after the Civil War swelled these neighborhoods. A "Great Migration" of blacks from the South continued in the years between the World Wars, filling up old neighborhoods and alley dwellings in central Baltimore. A residential housing city ordinance enacted after the Civil War, disallowed blacks from moving into blocks that were 50 percent white. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned this ordinance in 1917, but de facto segregation continued.

Early 20th-century reformers addressed the alley dwellings lacking sanitation facilities, as the city gradually moved to provide sewers and indoor toilet and bathing facilities.

Eastern Europeans, Poles, Czechs, Italians, and Russian Jews arrived to swell the ethic mix and rich diversity of Baltimore neighborhoods. The newcomers often occupied the cheapest alley dwellings vacated by the upwardly mobile previous occupants. The canneries east of Fells Point provided a source of employment for unskilled newly arrived workers. Slum clearance became a preoccupation, and Poe Homes, Baltimore's first public housing project with garden style apartments was built 1940-1941.

In 1967, fighting a new interstate highway that would be built across historic waterfront neighborhood Fells Point and Federal Hill, preservationists rallied to nominate both neighborhoods to a new National Register of Historic Places. The famous dollar house program that followed allowed homesteaders and gentrifiers to renovate waterfront neighborhoods with alley dwellings as well. Very soon alley dwellings and larger homes on surrounding streets, vacated by the city's poor, became chic new homes for young white urban pioneers who desired to live downtown close to their workplaces. While some inner-city neighborhoods have been renovated, several outlying neighborhoods remain unrestored and derelict, creating a challenge to preserve a huge housing stock of Baltimore row houses for all classes. Substantially built, they have provided housing for generations of Baltimoreans.

With meticulous research, Mary Ellen Hayward has re-created the history of working-class Baltimore and the waves of its ethnic emigrants and citizens by studying row houses and their neighborhoods. The book is an extraordinarily focused lens into 19th—and early 20th—century immigration patterns into America, with a rich social history included of the lives and fortunes of all the groups who arrived and struggled to establish themselves, with many ultimately providing themselves and their families a good living and solid housing, if constricted by street entrances, party walls, and limited light and ventilation, yet with quick and easy access to work, markets, church, and temple.

Gary Scott
National Park Service



1. George W. Howard, The Monumental City: Its Past History and Present Resources (Baltimore: J.D. Ehlers & Co., 1873), 35,44, cited on p. 144.