Even in dappled autumn sunlight, Fear Avenue in Northwest Baltimore looks a bit desolate. People are scarce, homes and businesses can be counted on one hand, and the traffic that flows heavily on nearby Reisterstown Road seems but a trickle on this obscure side street.
Come nightfall, inky shadows descend on Fear Avenue, casting an eerie pall over its gritty industrial buildings, chain-link fences and a road that comes to a dead end in a tangle of brush and tall trees.
But the origins of Fear Avenue aren't so frightful. The street is said to be named for Boston Fear (born Sebastian Fuhrer), a German immigrant who arrived in America in the mid-1800s. He became a prosperous Baltimore real estate developer, helping to create Walbrook, an early city suburb, according to land records in the Maryland State Archives' online database.
Today, the avenue that bears his name is among dozens of streets, lanes, roadways and drives in the Baltimore region and across Maryland minted with what one might call spooky, creepy, disquieting and occasionally macabre names.
Baltimore has Yell Street and Dark Lane, functionally a tiny alley that's sandwiched between the public defender's office and a law firm in downtown.
There's Spooks Hill Road and Asylum Lane in Baltimore County, the latter situated not far from Catonsville's Spring Grove Hospital Center complex, which treats psychiatric patients.
In Howard County, you'll find Lonely Road, Gallows Road and Shadow Lane.
"Developers often name new streets," said Frank Murphy, deputy director for operations in the Baltimore City Department of Transportation. Officials added that the Department of General Services has final say on private street names, and in the case of public streets, approval is sought before the name becomes effective.
The input of developers might explain the whimsically themed names on suburban lanes and cul de sacs, prevalent in planned communities like Columbia, where the streets take on literary labels, including Paul Revere Ride in the Longfellow subdivision.
But if that old real estate adage about "location" holds true, then what's in a name? Real estate professionals say an unusual or bizarre one isn't likely to prove a deal-breaker when it comes to buying or selling a home.
"There's a real estate joke that when a house is near a cemetery, you say the neighbors are quiet," said Carlton J. Boujai, president of the Maryland Association of Realtors, an Annapolis-based organization that represents nearly 22,000 licensed real estate agents. "There's no definitive truth, but I don't think it has to be a challenge."
Boujai, who works with Exit Realty Prosperity Group in Frederick, said he has shown properties before that face a graveyard or cemetery. While that factor might spook some potential homebuyers, he said it doesn't faze others.
That's good news considering the glut of streets around the state with multiple variations on the name "cemetery." In the town of Accident lies Old Cemetery Road, while visitors to Cooksville will find homes on another Cemetery Road. Grasonville and Denton each have their own residential versions of Cemetery Lane. And that's just scratching the surface.
But when it comes to sealing the deal, Boujai said, it's rare for the issue of street name to arise.
"I've been in the business 26 years and never had a problem like that," Boujai said. "But I'm sure [colleagues] can tell stories."
Real estate agent Gail Rowe can. She recalls being taken aback when a client who first "loved" the house she had been touring but then had an abrupt change of heart.
"She'd wandered to the back, and I heard a scream," says Rowe, an associate broker with Equity Realty Inc. in Carney. "It was this loud shriek. Then she came running out of the house."
Apparently, the woman had spied a tombstone just a few feet from the bedroom window.
"For some clients, things like odd names or a cemetery are not an issue. They don't care," said Rowe. "But some people are very superstitious."
Still, it's unlikely that a forbidding street name would adversely affect property values or home sales, real estate experts said.
Suicide Bridge Road is legendary in Dorchester County's maritime community, with local lore placing the bridge at the center of several tragedies over the decades, including people who have reportedly jumped to their deaths. But the nearby residential area is charming and picturesque, and recent listings show waterfront lots priced at $250,000 or more.
Data from sources that include the Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, the region's multiple-listing service, indicate multiple transactions on Maryland roads with "cemetery" in their names.
A residence on Cemetery Circle in Knoxville in Frederick County sold for nearly $250,000 in 2009. Besides standard features such as bedrooms and baths, one house had been advertised with extras: beautiful mountain views, plus easy access to the Potomac River and the C&O Canal.
Those kinds of amenities may trump any hesitation a buyer may have regarding a peculiar name, said Reese Grams, an agent with Kelley Real Estate in Middletown, who sold one of the houses on Cemetery Circle a few years ago.
"I don't know that most people think as much about the name of a street as much as what's around it," said Grams. "The cemetery in that community is on the top of a hill and the home was midways up the hill, set off the street to itself. I think what the buyers liked was the privacy."
If residents don't like the name of their street, they can always lobby officials for a change. That's what happened in Columbia's Hickory Ridge village when homeowners petitioned to have the name changed after a clerical mistake left them living on Satan Wood Drive instead of Satinwood Drive.
The new street signs went up in 2005 – a mere 30 years or so after the error.