Canton all for change that respects its past Preservation: Fears of Canton's demise are drowned out by its noisy renewal.

November 04, 1997|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

The waterfront community of Canton wakes each morning to the thunder of jackhammers, as men in blue jeans and hard hats create a dust storm swirling around brick and mortar.

The construction crews are working at a frantic pace, remodeling many of the historic neighborhood's Formstone-covered rowhouses and carving a retail complex out of a former canning factory. Even Boston Street, which hugs the harbor basin, is being renovated.

For decades, the gentrification of older city neighborhoods has provoked angst among old-timers who fear being displaced. Yet in Canton, where developers are putting a fresh face on the 19th-century community of brick rowhouses, churches and light industry, the transition is being lauded.

Longtime residents who once worried that Canton would deteriorate as the elderly moved to nursing homes or passed away are thrilled with all the commotion. Armed with assurances that Canton's history will be preserved, people who have lived in the same house for decades are welcoming newcomers with cookies and cakes.

"I think it's exciting. There's a sense of hope in the air," said Margie Policastri, 46, who has lived in Canton all her life. She and her husband chose to stay in their modest two-story rowhouse on Dillon Street long after their childhood friends had moved out of the city.

"It used to be that Fells Point and Federal Hill were the hot spots, especially after the real estate bust," Policastri said, referring to the national recession that defeated developers' dreams of turning Canton into a "Gold Coast" in the 1980s.

"Then all of a sudden there was a boom, like somebody turned on a light switch or something. Canton became the place to be," Policastri said. "We've got people from Harford and Montgomery counties buying homes here."

Young professionals and empty-nesters started settling in Canton about 15 years ago, drawn to the waterfront by luxury condominiums and upscale apartment complexes like Tindeco Wharf. By 1990, 12,803 people were living in Canton -- up 26 percent from 1980. The arrival of artists, authors, doctors and dentists has spurred development deep in the land of Formstone facades.

In the past five years, the newcomers have been moving steadily north, away from the waterfront and toward Patterson Park. They've been stripping Southeast Baltimore's rowhouses of their traditional Formstone in favor of exposed red brick fronts and removing many of the screen paintings that adorned homes in Canton for generations. They've even begun adding wood decks to their roofs, allowing them to enjoy private harbor views.

In the 16-month period that ended in April, 286 building permits were acquired by Canton residents seeking permission to renovate their homes, city records show. Only 14 people in the neighborhood requested building permits in 1993.

"All the banging and drilling is like music to my ears," said Betty Piskor, 69, a Pennsylvania native who moved to Canton after her wedding to a local boy nearly 50 years ago.

She helped fight a successful battle against the proposed superhighway that would have gone through the center of the community during the 1960s. The highway would have run through her Fait Avenue rowhouse.

"I'm very happy to see people moving into Canton and fixing up the houses," Piskor said. "For a while there, we all held our breath because the older people were dying out and the younger people were moving to the suburbs."

Home sales in Canton -- a neighborhood bounded by Eastern Avenue, the Outer Harbor, Conkling and Chester streets -- have nearly doubled in the past three years, and property values also have been steadily improving, city records show.

While the average price for residential properties is $54,000, there were more than a dozen that sold for more than $200,000 between June 1996 and July 1997. In contrast, real estate records show, only one sold for that much in 1995. Ninety homes are on the market.

The renovation of Canton's older homes has sparked a commercial renaissance along the waterfront and as far north as O'Donnell Square. The square, a former farmer's market three blocks north of the harbor, has gone through a metamorphosis. Over the past three years, once-vacant storefronts have been renovated. The commercial strip is home to coffee shops and cafes, hair salons and dentists' offices.

"Living in Canton is like living in a small town. This is a neighborhood with Old World charm, a place where everybody knows everybody else," said James Pomfret, a stockbroker who moved to Canton about 10 years ago.

He explains: "When you tell someone you're going to Joe's place, they know you're headed to the Canton Art Gallery, and when you say you're stopping at Debbie's for coffee, people understand that you're going to Needful Things. Proper names aren't necessary." (The gallery is owned by Joe LaMastra; Debbie Brooks operates the Needful Things coffee shop).

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