By DeWitt Bliss
Special to the Sun
Originally published March 30, 1997
It began developing in the late 1700s as a stopover on the York Turnpike and as a rural community.
A hundred years later, it became a suburban community that was eventually linked to the downtown area by streetcar.
And in the last half-century it has become one of Baltimore's most mature urban communities.
Govans, with its hub being the area around York Road and Bellona Avenue -- is a rich blend of residential homes and home-grown businesses.
The area takes its name from William Govane, who in the mid-1700s received a grant of land from Frederick Calvert, the last Lord Baltimore. He established an estate which he called Drumquehastle, later simplified to Drumcastle. Govans -town became part of the city in 1918 and its name was changed to Govans in 1953.
James L. McGarvey, a retired millwright leader for the Eastern Stainless Steel Co., said that when his family moved to Govans in 1948 it was "almost country in the city, very peaceful and quiet."
And, although he's seen the passage of the streetcar and the doubling of traffic along York Road, he still considers Govans "a nice neighborhood as far as I'm concerned, still very peaceful off York Road."
Tom Resch, owner of Maenner's Market on York Road, a grocery that specializes in produce and displays it on the sidewalk, understands the problems of the city's older neighborhoods. Nevertheless, "I like it better today, more stable, more homeownership," he said.
His experience with the neighborhood goes back 27 years, when he began working as a schoolboy in the store that he has now owned for four years.
He knows the market has been in existence for at least 50 years and that it was in the feed and grain business when he first started. In fact, he remembers falling into the feed bins that took up half of the store when he started working at the nearly pTC 200-year-old building that has yielded handmade nails and wooden pegs during remodeling.
After helping a woman load her purchases into her car parked outside the door, he defended neighborhood businesses, saying, "People complain about parking at a neighborhood store, but wind up parking farther away at a mall."
Churches have played an active role in the community since the middle of the last century, when St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church, better known as St. Mary's Govans , was started as an offshoot of a nearby orphanage.
The Govans Presbyterian Church was established by members of the First Presbyterian Church, and parishioners of the Evans Chapel moved from Roland Avenue near the Gilman School to Govans , where it became the present Govans Boundary Parish United Methodist Church.
Those churches, along with Gregory Memorial Baptist Church, Pleasant Hope Baptist Church and the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, joined in the mid-1980s to redevelop the old Govans -town Hotel -- an 1850s vintage building at York Road and Bellona Avenue -- as the Epiphany House Apartments for the elderly.
This group evolved into the present Govans Ecumenical Development Corporation, which includes 25 churches in the area, according to its executive director, Julia Pierson.
"The churches have been here a long time and have large properties in the community," Pierson said. "They feel a responsibility to give back to the community and many have joined as an extension of their social ministries.
Its programs also have included restoration of the Gallagher Mansion, just off York Road, and building an addition for more apartments for the elderly. The exterior of the building, which was built in 1855 but remodeled in 1879, was restored to its 1879 appearance.
Another current program, CARES, started in 1994, provides help for the poor in a much larger area of North Baltimore, through a food pantry at St. Mary's and through emergency financial aid for prescriptions or to forestall an eviction or a utility cut off.
Other groups have been working to improve both residential and commercial neighborhoods.
The Govanstowne Business Association on York Road Inc., has 245 members in a special taxing district from 43rd Street to the city line and does promotional work, publishes a commercial guide and business directory, does studies on revitalization, has a cleanup program and seeks improvements in the streetscape.
Susan Hodges, the association's executive director, said, " Govans is a good place to do business," noting that the area businesses might give better service than one might receive at a mall. "Most of these people own their own businesses. They are there every day and want to support the community. Both the residential community and business area depend on each other."
Two organizations have become especially active in housing and neighborhood preservation.
The Govans Economic Management Senate, according to Jai Elyn Obea, its community organizer, promotes homeownership, offers loans to the elderly to repair their property, counsels homeowners and has actually built some homes in its area between 39th Street and Woodbourne Avenue and York Road and The Alameda.
To the north, the Belvedere Improvement Association, the Lake-Walker Improvement Association and the Chinquapin Improvement Association have banded together as the North Central Baltimore Home Owners Alliance to buy, rehabilitate and sell three houses a year through the St. Ambrose Housing Society. Catherine Evans, president of the Belvedere group, said they also had held a real estate fair last fall and were planning another this spring.
Evans also chairs the York Road Partnership, an umbrella group of organizations from 39th Street to the city line. The group coordinates positive activities for York Road through three action committees: streetscape, residential and economic development.