Edna Canty-Jones says it's a feeling, an attitude, pride in having roots, that lures her back to Baltimore every fall for the immensely popular reunion of current and former residents of Sandtown.
This year's reunion is tomorrow at the Fifth Regiment Armory. As it always has, the reunion is expected to attract more than 5,000 people.
"People come out and I mean they come out, even if they never come out any other time of year," says Canty-Jones, who now lives in New York City. "People tend to dress that night. I mean in their Sunday best."
She says, laughing, "I always go out and spend as much money on myself as possible! But I think even the poorest person will dress up, wash his last shirt with a hole in it and go."
Sandtown is a gritty community in West Baltimore bounded, generally, on the north by North Avenue, on the west by Monroe Street, on the south by Lafayette Avenue, on the east by Fremont and Pennsylvania avenues.
The Committee United To Save Sandtown has held the reunion every year since 1978. With the proceeds, it tries to help young people by providing scholarships, food, books and clothing. Tickets for the reunion -- dinner, music, from 9 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. -- are $10.
Edna Canty-Jones grew up in Sandtown, graduated from Douglass High School in 1957, got married when she was 20 and moved to New York City. She is an executive manager for the Social Security Administration.
She visits her parents, who still live in Sandtown, and her two sisters, who moved to Randallstown, several times a year. But it is the reunion, she says, where she sees at least 100 classmates from her graduating class at Douglass.
"This is the place I go to rekindle friendships I've had since first grade," she says. "Last year I even brought down four couples [from New York City], and they said it was the best time they'd ever had."
Once, however, a friend from New York looked at Sandtown and called it a ghetto. Canty-Jones was shocked.
"I never really thought of it as that," she says.
She remembers white marble steps, flowers in boxes on windowsills, parties, concerts and more friends than she would ever have again in her life. One of them is Regina Carroll, president of the Committee United To Save Sandtown.
"The neighborhood was close-knit," Carroll says. "If you were hungry, someone's mother would feed you. But if you did something wrong, she'd come out and whip you just like you were her own."
Sandtown deteriorated through the years, as did inner-city communities all over the country. But much is being done to rehabilitate Sandtown: new townhouses, refurbished apartments and rowhouses, social programs of all kinds.
The city and the Enterprise Foundation have joined forces for "a total redevelopment of Sandtown, socially and physically," says Leonard Jackson Jr., program director of the Sandtown-Winchester Improvement Association.
But Sandtown is home, says Catherine Studivant, vice president of the Committee United To Save Sandtown -- no matter what outsiders may think of it.
"We see Sandtown from a different glow," Studivant says. "It's just a feeling you get. I guess you can't understand unless you live here."