Neglected tip of the city Repaving: Baltimore is finally fixing Hawkins Point Road, but the handful of people who live along it still feel largely forgotten.

September 12, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Still sharp at age 86, Mae Smith sits in the living room of her two-bedroom, one-story bungalow and listens to the construction crews.

She smiles. It is too little, too late, she says, but it is something.

For the first time in more than three decades, Hawkins Point Road -- her connection to the rest of Baltimore for the 81 years she has lived here -- is being repaved.

The road, a rough patchwork that shows the scars of decades of weather and industrial traffic, is a symbol of the neglected neighborhood in the southernmost tip of the city that is home to little besides a Coast Guard yard, trucking firms, dumps and stray cats.

Only four homes remain in what is variously called Hawkins Point or Arundel Cove, and residents say the police sometimes don't come when they call.

Oh, sure, the first repaving since 1965 will mean that the trucks will go even faster on their way to the Beltway. Yes, it is being done for the convenience of industry. And in spending nearly $800,000 on resurfacing, the city still has not followed through on 1975 plans to widen a road that engineers say is dangerous and obsolete.

But all that misses the point, say residents: The repaving is proof -- concrete proof -- that somebody up in City Hall knows people still live down here.

"I've called the city, and the first thing they say is, 'Are you sure you live in Baltimore?' " says Mae's son, Donald, 62. "No one ever knew we were here except the city tax collectors."

The resurfacing, begun July 29 and scheduled for completion in February, is routine enough. In the half-mile or so from the Curtis Creek bridge to Quarantine Road, crews will put down a six-inch stone base, cover that with eight inches of concrete, and lay a three-inch asphalt frosting on top.

But if the road is a symbol of a neighborhood that the Smiths call remote even though it sits in a city of 700,000, it is also a reminder that politics has a way of producing dark, out-of-the-way corners and that effective democracy can sometimes be cruel.

"If you were in the government, here you had a place you could dump something," says Donald Smith.

In 1914, when Mae Smith's family moved to the neighborhood, Hawkins Point had a smattering of manufacturers and a quarantine for new immigrants, she says. But the Coast Guard Yard, where her father worked, dominated life.

The family would walk down Hawkins Point Road, then a dirt track, to attend the Coast Guard dances, parties and weekend movie screenings (the crowds thinned a bit when they started charging a 10-cent admission).

To go to school, young Mae also had to follow the road over the creek, then walk north a mile or so to Curtis Bay, where she would catch a streetcar to Eastern High School. The whole trip took more than an hour.

Hawkins Point became an industrial hotbed during and after World War II. New chemical companies and plants opened. The Hawkins Point pier did a growing, if secret, business in shipping munitions to the Allied forces; the government paid local dockworkers twice the going rate to keep their mouths shut.

In 1942, Mae Smith and her husband, Melvin, moved to a new house across the street from where Mae had grown up. He died in 1962, only a year after retiring, but Mae remained active in the lives of her six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

One Christmas, so many relatives came to her house for dinner that they had to extend the dining room table; Donald Smith wound up sitting at the table's head -- in the bathroom.

At the neighborhood's height, 17 families lived there, and Mrs. Smith made almost that many of her acclaimed coconut cakes each year. There were another two dozen houses in a black community several hundred yards to the east.

But those numbers weren't enough. The city put a landfill there and bought out residents of the black neighborhood to make way for a toxic waste dump.

More recently, the Hawkins Point Medical Incinerator was built. Each time, a different politician might be blamed for the stench or dust, but the neighborhood's size made it inevitable.

"Down here you didn't have many people, many voters," says Donald Smith.

"You know, it was [William Donald] Schaefer who sold us out," says Mae of the former mayor.

"Oh, Ma, it was zoned heavy industrial before Schaefer," says her son. "All this was going to happen sooner or later."

In the past two decades, the proximity of the Beltway brought trucking and other small businesses to the road, and with all the dirty air, many residents sold their land.

Those who remain have special ties to the place. The Smiths' next-door neighbors, Jack and Grace Brown, live behind the car dealership they've had for 30 years. The families of their son Jeffrey and their daughter Susan live on the property.

"You can't get gas or cable service," says Grace Brown, 57. "It's a strange place to live."

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