'Everything is lovely' to folks in Locust Point

May 13, 1999|By Michael Olesker

THEY'RE beautiful, no? The three of 'em, Doris Konig and Marie Kalski and Lillian Taylor, sit there in Latrobe off Fort Avenue on Tuesday evening, doing what people do in Locust Point with spring in the air and the world in perfect harmony all around them.

"We're looking for some good-looking men," says Konig, 71 years old. She laughs a hearty girlish laugh at herself.

"You know any, hon?" says Kalski, who is 76, playing along with the fine little joke.

"Yeah, good-lookin,' " says Taylor, who is 73.

They're sharing a bench near Locust Point Recreation Center, where neighbors are gathering to talk about changes coming to this southern Baltimore community. There's a nice sense of anticipation in the air, with newly announced plans for the abandoned Procter & Gamble Co. plant a few blocks away, and talk of a new road, and rumors of a ferry that would slip from Locust Point over to East Baltimore.

"For shopping and all," says Kalski, dreaming of the bright lights of Highlandtown and Canton.

In Locust Point, there are eternal verities, and these ladies are among them. The neighborhood's always felt like a small town plopped into a big metropolitan area, partly because of its geography -- the main drag, Fort Avenue, dead-ends at Fort McHenry, so there's only one way in and out -- and partly because of history.

People who arrive here tend to stay here. Doris Konig, for example, has lived in the same house for the past 50 years. Marie Kalski, 60 years. Lillian Taylor, 45. She's the new kid on the block.

"And we all married boys from the neighborhood," says Konig. The boys are gone, but their widows have deep roots here. No one imagines moving elsewhere.

This park offers a few clues why. There are kids everywhere, playing ball, climbing sliding boards, romping with dogs. A couple of coed softball games are going on, played by grown-ups whose kids sit along the sidelines. Three of the kids are reading books, glancing up only occasionally at their parents, as if checking to make sure they don't hurt themselves. There are rowhouses lining the west side of the park. Children who live there must emerge each summer day and find themselves in instant camp.

"You know what else?" says Doris Konig. "I go over my son's house in the evening, and he'll say, 'You want me to walk you home, Mom?' And I'll say, 'What for?' "

"That's right," says Lillian Taylor. "It's a family place. Nobody feels nervous."

In recent times, what nervousness exists is mostly economic. Sixty years ago, a fellow named J. Bailey Cornelius penned these sweet lines about Locust Point:

I live below the dead line,

Where hard times seldom come

Because of the large industries

And big business on the hum.

Where everything is lovely

And the goose is hanging high

I love our grand old city

But down here let me die.

The lines capture the love for Locust Point -- but they miss some of the economic troubles that were coming. The neighborhood has always relied on nearby waterfront jobs, so the city's failure last week to land a major new terminal hurt badly.

But the old Procter & Gamble plant, at the bottom of Hull Street at Nicholson, looks promising. The developers Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse, who last year turned Canton's abandoned American Can Co. into a complex of offices and shops and a Bibelot bookstore, want to try something similar with the old soap-making facility.

It's been vacant since 1995. There's talk of $53 million worth of office and retail space and the possibility of 2,000 jobs. Thus, the new talk of a long-stalled road extension to the plant from nearby Key Highway. Thus, more economic optimism.

But Locust Point's charms have always transcended money. The old-timers still talk of ice skating on Devil's Pond. Or they talk of the ladies who used to come out of their homes in the morning to scrub their sidewalks. Or of fellows selling vegetables from the backs of wagons and the smell of cooking suppers wafting through open windows.

But today's joys are substantial, too. It's a front-stoop culture when the weather permits. Front stoops and aluminum beach chairs and a whole culture of neighbors exchanging local gossip, and kids in the park without the slightest sense of menace.

"I've been here 23 years," says Ricky Lamb, whose Fort Avenue dental practice overlooks the park. "People tend to settle in. Although, for a long time, my practice was lots of longshoremen, and now there are little changes. I'm starting to see stockbrokers. Yuppies have discovered the neighborhood."

But most old-timers are here for the duration. They're cheered by the news about Procter & Gamble. But they stick around for the eternal charms, too. Like kids playing ball in the park. Or the bicyclists pedaling around Fort McHenry, or the familiar taverns dotting almost every street corner.

Or those such as Doris Konig and Marie Kalski and Lillian Taylor, out for an evening's company in the park, listening to the sound of children around them. And, what the heck, keeping an eye out for any handsome guys.

Pub Date: 05/13/99

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