Blooms And Smiles Along Rose Alley

JACQUES KELLY

May 21, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

Helen Sadowski of Highlandtown is in her bloomin' glory when her precious roses are at their peak. The area of the Southeast Baltimore neighborhood in which she lives is called Rose Alley. ,, The alley's bumper crop of creamy pinks, dusky crimsons and jubilant yellows is no match for her rosy personality.

"I'd walk a million miles for a smiling rose," she said the other day in her 12-foot-wide back yard, where she's been knee-deep in peat moss for the past 46 years.

At 81, she prunes, clips, worries and delights in all the plants in her spotless garden. There are no plants with unpronounceable names here. If it isn't a rose, it's a snapdragon or a scarlet sage.

There was a time when the yards behind the 600 blocks of S. Macon and Newkirk streets were filled with orderly columns of rose bushes that burst into color every May and bloomed off and on until November or December. The alley, just wide enough for a garbage truck to squeeze through, was the talk of this part of Highlandtown.

"Not so many people tend to roses anymore," Miss Helen said. "They take a lot of work and time. The women is all working. So many of the yards have been paved over with cement. People don't even bother to cut the little bit of grass they have."

"At one time, every yard along here had roses in it," said neighbor Ethel Miller, known as Miss Matty, or Chatty Matty as she laughingly calls herself.

Miss Matty moved next door to Helen Sadowski more than 40 years ago. She subsequently moved a few houses away to the other side of the alley but they've remained good friends for all that time. In early spring, before their roses have leafed out, they get out cans of silver paint and recoat the thin wire fencing that divides their back yards.

"One day years ago, my son, who's now 44, was outside in a tin wash tub," Miss Matty recalled. "I was hanging up the laundry and he got up and tipped himself over and hit a rose. It split the bush in two and his head was filled with thorns. My father came running and washed him down with alcohol. The rose bush is still split in the same place."

The story is legend on Rose Alley. While the back yards are small, residents did not let that stop them from planting flower gardens. They were proud of their roses. When they moved, they often dug up their favorite plants and took them along.

"One neighbor tried to outdo the other. The people next door, the Sauters, had 42 roses. That was the record," said Miss Helen.

She rattled off the patented names of roses -- Red Grand Master, Tropicana, Candy Stripe, Eclipse, Garden Party, Camelot, John Kennedy, Niger, Good News, New Year, Lavender Lady, Gray Pearl, Radiance.

"And the Peace rose. That will always be my favorite. I just love to come outside and smell that perfume of the hybrid tea rose," she said.

Sometimes she'd be downtown shopping on Lexington Street and find roses stacked up outside a 10-cent store. Other times, she and another Rose Alley neighbor would drive up Route 1 to Avondale, Pa., home of the Star Rose nursery.

"I'd -- through the fields and say, 'I want this one. I want that one,' " she said.

Other times, hucksters roamed the alleys in search of customers.

"There used to be a man who came through the alley on a truck. He'd call out, 'Rose-a bush, rose-a bush,' and he'd call everybody mom," Miss Helen recalled. There were other vendors. Men who came through with trucks full of topsoil and peat moss. They found ready buyers in the ladies of Rose Alley.

"The first thing people did when they moved into these houses was they put up clothes lines. And the second thing was they dug holes for the roses. It's been that way as long as I've lived here," said Miss Helen.

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