Dundalk hangs tough

April 07, 1993

The wisecrack was all too typical of local attitudes toward Dundalk, the historic blue-collar community in eastern Baltimore County. At a statewide meeting of medical professionals last month, a Baltimore doctor jokingly explained the tackiness of his slide display by saying, "Dundalk funded this."

The doctor apologized. But the incident served to remind how this community has long been the butt of such questionable humor.

Dundalk deserves better. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it played an important part in home-front response to the two World Wars, as well as a key role in steel production during the national boom years after World War II.

Until the outbreak of World War I boosted production at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point yard, Dundalk was a quiet farm community, not unlike much of the county at that time. Then, as activity increased at the Point, planners of Baltimore's fashionable Roland Park neighborhood were hired to remake Dundalk as an attractive suburb with single-family homes for the steel workers.

But with the United States' entry into the Great War, the demand for steel ballooned and the Roland Park-style plans were scrapped in favor of a rowhouse layout to accommodate all the new workers. Pieces of the plans were carried out after the war, providing Dundalk with its central business district and some smart homes of brick and stucco.

In the decades that followed, Dundalk got even more crowded and urbanized as Beth Steel, Eastern Stainless and other industries expanded. Beth Steel alone had a work force of more than 30,000 three decades ago, about four times what it is today. Some area historians believe Dundalk might have grown too rapidly. Its population, including many formerly unemployed people from the South and the Midwest, grew so fast that a strong local identity was, conversely, slow to develop.

Nor did it help when the blue-collar industries that supported much of the eastern county began to shrink. Not coincidentally, Dundalk and other local communities are among the poorest and the most crime-ridden areas in Baltimore County.

Yet Dundalk hangs tough, as evidenced by the ire over the doctor's remark, and by the recent Dundalk Fair, in which elementary school students assembled 150 projects on local history. One teacher said the work of the students, who represent the future of their community, "shows they have a lot of pride. . . and that speaks well for Dundalk."

And that's no joke.

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