For some Baltimoreans a deep connection to their childhood homes

Leave and come back or stay and never go — some of Baltimore’s magnetism is rooted in childhood.

Published on: November 14, 2022 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: November 17, 2022 11:50 AM EST

(left) Betty Davis, takes a portrait in front of her family home in Allendale, Baltimore, MD, on November 10, 2022. 
(right) Maryanne Campanella, stands in front of her family home in Little Italy, Baltimore, MD, on November 10, 2022. Campanella's family has occupied this home for more than 100 years.

Betty Fenner-Davis could yell for someone near her street as a kid and almost any of her neighbors living in one of the attached brick rowhouses in the Allendale neighborhood of West Baltimore would recognize her.

More than four miles away in Little Italy in East Baltimore, Mary Ann Campanella remembers a similar camaraderie. She used to leave her home on High Street for school to the sounds of neighbors sweeping the steps to their homes as they greeted her and each other.

These old memories, so clear in their minds even as adults, show the impression one’s upbringing can have. So much so for Fenner-Davis and Campanella that both women live in the home they grew up in. Fenner-Davis moved back, and Campanella never left the neighborhood.

Leave and come back or stay and never go — some of Baltimore’s magnetism is rooted in childhood. Specifically, many people have a strong emotional connection to their childhood homes, said psychology professor Jerry Burger, particularly the house they lived in between the ages of 5 and 12. They may visit or move back seeking a sense of reconnection and community, or when going through a traumatic experience that calls for a sense of familiarity. When neighborhoods change, it can evoke a feeling of loss and grief.

“For many people, the home and the area around the home is actually a part of their identity,” said Burger, who works at Santa Clara University. “It’s a part of their self and who they are.”

Longtime residents like Fenner-Davis and Campanella have a “landscape of the past” when it comes to their neighborhood, which allows them to see a community for all that it was, is and could be, said Dr. Elgin Klugh, an associate professor of social science and anthropology at Coppin State University.

“Home is where all your definitions are introduced to you,” Klugh said. “Where all your first experiences are, your grounding and the ultimate rooting of your being.”

Coming back home

A sibling’s wedding in the living room, her sweet 16 party in the paneled basement. Fenner- Davis’s Allendale house on Gwynn Avenue was more than a home, and the community taught her the importance of family. Neighbors included.

Allendale is one of over a dozen city neighborhoods west of Gwynns Falls. It’s on the southern side of Edmondson Avenue and neighbors Edmondson Village, Uplands, Saint Josephs and the 125-acre New Cathedral Cemetery along Frederick Road. Some of the homes were built by developer James Keelty in the 1900s, known for his trademark “Daylight Colonial” rowhomes, which featured a window in each room. Home architecture in these West Baltimore neighborhoods, according to Roderick Ryon in his book “West Baltimore Neighborhoods: Sketches of their History,” reflect “eras of in-migration.” By the 1950s, African Americans, part of the great out-migration of the 1950s, acquired old and new houses.

Fenner-Davis, 69, and her family moved into their Allendale home in 1957. Her mother, she said, walked from East Baltimore to Allendale to scout for somewhere to live. They were one of the first Black families on Gwynn Avenue, she said.

She grew up with a large group of kids her age. They’d walk a mile to school as a group, taking their normal routes in and out of other neighborhoods. The older daughters in the community had sandwiches and cookies for the younger kids whose mothers worked into the early evening as domestic workers and whose fathers worked in factories.

There are longstanding landmarks in the neighborhood, like the Mary E. Rodman Elementary School built in 1962. The school and the recreation center, built in 1974, of the same name are named after a leader in education who taught at schools in Baltimore for nearly 50 years.

Summers in Allendale, Fenner-Davis said, were filled with cookouts, Bible school and church trips. She was part of a girls’ social club that held bake sales or waistline parties (a gathering with a fee that’s dependent on a person’s waistline size) to raise money for trips to go to Wildwood Park, Hershey Park or have picnics.

“Baltimore was a big enough city to feel like you were aware enough to go to other places. Small enough to be sheltered,” Fenner-Davis said. She wishes there were more for kids to do these days in Allendale.

Fenner-Davis noticed a shift in the neighborhood during the Vietnam War. Classmates and other men in the community shipped off to “a war that was wrong” and didn’t come back the same, their spirits stripped if they came home at all.

“When they came back, the drugs came in. It [the war] was a setup from the beginning,” she said.

Families started moving out in the 1970s, she remembers, and headed to the suburbs. Her family considered moving, but they didn’t want to give up their home. Fenner-Davis said it was important to keep the house in the family because of what her parents did to get it and keep it. The “foundational and generational wealth,” she said, provides security for her family, giving the next generation certainty that they will never be homeless and will have an opportunity to build upon something.

Fenner-Davis taught herself how to make clothes with lessons learned from her home economics class and the use of a neighbor’s large sewing machine. She dressed her mother and made clothes for her social club in their signature pink and blue colors. Fenner-Davis continued that skill as an adult. The Northwestern High School graduate attended fashion school in New York and decided to go to Los Angeles in 1980 with samples of her clothing. But at home, her father developed cerebellar ataxia, which impacts the part of the brain that manages how different parts work together.

To accommodate her father’s illness, they built a white rail from the patio to the silver fencing bordering the front yard opposite a tall evergreen tree her mother planted decades ago. For five years she’d commute between Baltimore and Los Angeles before permanently moving west in 1985, where she’d get to sell her original designs to shows like “General Hospital” and work with different movie productions like “Drop Squad” and “Meteor Man.” Her father died in 1994.

Fenner-Davis returned to Allendale in 2006 as more of her family developed cerebellar ataxia. If you ask Fenner-Davis if she would have come back to Allendale if she didn’t need to help her family, she’d say “heck no.” Now she’s continuing to build on what her parents started.

“They came to build a family and foundation. I feel honored to have been around that,” Fenner-Davis said.

The house has grown like her and her family, she said. Each person adding something new.

Her mother built a garden in the front yard; Fenner-Davis pointed to the additional plants and backsplash she and her husband added. Fenner-Davis recently had a 12-by-20 green shed with a gray roof installed in the backyard — a workspace for her couture line, Fenner Originale. The shed with red carpet houses a cedar closet for clothing samples, a cutting table, bins of supplies and trims of fabric. And since the house will remain in the family, she hopes the next generations to come will add to the house with changes they see fit.

‘More than bricks and mortar’

In Little Italy, Campanella’s home has changed many times, she said, a result of her carpenter father who liked to renovate it to keep up with the times. He lowered the ceiling, fixed up the electric wires and upgraded the plumbing. Her mother wasn’t one to keep many relics either, giving many objects away, like Tiffany-style lamps to keep the home modern.

Yet the house in the 400 block of South High Street always felt like her childhood home, even with every change.

Her grandfather, an only child from the Italian province of Ascoli Piceno, immigrated to the United States in 1882. He initially settled on Albemarle Street, buying the house on High Street in 1918 after he married Campanella’s grandmother, a widow who had a little boy. They had four more children, Campanella said, including her mother.

Campanella’s maternal grandmother died before she was born in 1941, but her grandfather lived with her, her parents and siblings until he died in 1952. Her brother and sister moved out, she said, but Campanella “stayed put.” She was 31 when she married Guido, an Italian man who lived in Pennsylvania before moving to Baltimore.

“I said to my husband: ‘You marry me, you got to stay in Little Italy,’ ” Campanella said.

Her Little Italy neighborhood, bounded by Pratt Street to Eastern Avenue and from President Street to Eden Street, was at one time larger and livelier. She remembers a community with more than 20 restaurants, several Italian grocery stores and butcher shops. One of her favorite stores was in the next block on High Street, where Aldo’s Restaurant was once located. People shopped for Italian cheeses and meats butchered to order.

St. Leo the Great Roman Catholic Church, built in 1881, served as the heart of the community, Campanella said. It ran the neighborhood’s Catholic school, where most children of the neighborhood attended classes and after-school activities. Campanella played on the basketball team and was part of the fife and drum corps.

The school closed more than 40 years ago due to low enrollment, according to The Baltimore Sun. Young couples married and left the neighborhood around the same time, Campanella said, usually choosing to start a family in the suburbs.

“That was the start of the demise of Little Italy,” she said.

But she could never leave her neighborhood. Even after she got married, she moved two doors away from her childhood home. And when her parents died more than 20 years ago, she moved right back.

A home is more than bricks and mortar, said Dr. Linda Darrell, an associate professor at Morgan State University’s school of social work. A childhood home is usually where people have formed connections and relationships that are incredibly formative, such as through school and neighborhood gatherings.

The ages between 5 and 12 are particularly impressionable, when the sense of self is developed.

Drastic changes in a community like Little Italy can be hard to take, Darrell said — it is a loss becoming less common as fewer people live in one place for long periods.

“I don’t think people have those same kinds of connections and relationships, those same kinds of community,” Darrell said. “Or that same sense of community.”

Campanella’s house was typically “mobbed” with family and friends on Christmas, she said. Her mother and aunt began preparations two weeks before, shopping for groceries to make a Italian big meal. Families flooded to the streets and to the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, listening to the choir at church. Her mother would start working on the ravioli, made from scratch, at 3 a.m. for the Christmas Day dinner, one of the many dishes that would be set on the long table in her dining room for at least a dozen people.

Her husband, Guido, painted brown utensils on the tiles on the walls of her kitchen. He renovated the floor in the kitchen, too. The two owned a business that sold tiles, marble and terrazo, with several men on payroll.

She changed things around her home after her husband got ill. She got rid of the chairs and tables in the dining room to make room for medical devices and added a downstairs bathroom. She took care of her husband as she had for her parents. Her husband died more than eight years ago.

She has fought for improvements in the neighborhood over the years. When she was president of a community organization, an architectural committee secured city funding to fix a crumbling street. She navigated the zoning and liquor boards to hold Christmas block parties for the community.

She has noticed the neighborhood changing in the last two decades, at first slowly. There were fewer families and Italian restaurants, and businesses dwindled exponentially.

“Now it’s going faster and faster,” she said.

Fenner-Davis said her neighborhood is also full of new faces. Gone is the family across the street with seven girls or the woman who got off the bus at 7 p.m. every evening, like clockwork. There are as few as eight original families from her childhood living on her street in Allendale now, she said. They continue to look out for each other, but the community camaraderie isn’t the same.

Campanella’s mother used to sit out on the bench in front of her home, much as Campanella does now when the weather is nice. Her mother’s neighbors and friends gathered around, chatting and gossiping.

“It was one time a very nice closely knit neighborhood,” Campanella said. “I’m living with strangers now.”

Fenner-Davis is also learning to cope with the unfamiliar layers that continue to unfold in her community, but she’s grateful to have created a lifetime’s worth of memories with the people who defined home for her.

But neither women plans to go anywhere anytime soon.

“Having spent 60 years in this neighborhood invested in these people has been an extraordinary blessing,” Fenner-Davis said.

Campanella said: “I could have moved out many years ago. But this was my original home. And [there were] a lot of good memories here of family coming on holidays and all. That’s what I remember. But now, no more.”

Want to learn more? Starting today, “Midday in the Neighborhood” from WYPR returns. The live radio conversation, in partnership with The Baltimore Banner, sets out to spotlight the remarkable tapestry of communities that make up Baltimore. Today’s episode, to air during the noon hour, will feature Jasmine Vaughn-Hall and Betty Fenner-Davis talking about people who live in their childhood homes.