Industrial heart of Baltimore beats to a new rhythm

Canton: After seeing its industry die, the waterfront neighborhood on the city's east side is reborn as a sizzling residential and commercial real estate market.

May 07, 2000|By Tom Pelton and Kurt Streeter | Tom Pelton and Kurt Streeter,SUN STAFF

Two men climbed onto a hill of rocks near a half-sunken freighter on Canton's industrial waterfront one evening in 1978. Around them was a landscape of rotting piers, boarded-up factories, discarded mattresses and junked cars.

One saw the future home of a lumberyard. The other saw something more improbable.

"Don't put your lumberyard here," Mayor William Donald Schaefer told lumber business owner Louis J. Grasmick. "You should build real nice townhouses.

"This could be Baltimore's Gold Coast."

The Tin Coast would have been a more appropriate title, except that almost all of the area's once-thriving canneries, tin factories and fertilizer plants were closed and shrouded in weeds and barbed wire.

"He looked at me like I was just crazy," Schaefer said of Grasmick. "But he built the townhouses."

After two decades of boom and bust and boom again, the once-depressed blue-collar neighborhood of Canton has become one of the hottest real estate markets in the region, with its crumbling wharves and packing houses reborn as upscale apartments, marinas and high-tech offices.

In Baltimore, which has lost nearly one of every five residents since 1980, the story of how Canton has risen above the death of its industry to create computer jobs and boost its population by a third contains lessons about how parts of economically troubled cities can reinvent themselves under the right conditions.

But the ingredients for Canton's success might strike some as being as unlikely as the former mayor's vision of yacht piers springing up next to oil terminals.

Canton's rise can be attributed to its failures.

The neighborhood suffered through the demolition of 300 homes in 1968 for a superhighway that was never built. The death of the East-West Expressway, which would have connected the Jones Falls Expressway with Interstate 95, left a two-block-wide swath along the waterfront that turned out to be a rare opportunity for development in a densely packed city.

Canton had lost thousands of industrial jobs from the 1960s through the 1980s as its factories were hurt by foreign competition and increased mechanization.

But the plant closings allowed the city to rezone the entire waterfront from industrial to residential. And they removed pollution and heavy truck traffic that would have been incompatible with the development of apartments, shops and offices.

After an initial burst of development in the 1980s, builders late in that decade and the early 1990s were hampered by community activists and the recession.

But the defeat of plans to build a row of view-blocking, glass-and-steel high-rises along the water prevented the demolition of the American Can Co. complex, which is now the area's biggest retail draw. It also preserved the neighborhood's old-world character, which attracts wealthy residents.

Canton has also been fortunate to be isolated. Even after its factories closed, the neighborhood remained a stable, churchgoing, largely Polish-American community protected from crime and homelessness on three sides by the water, an industrial area and relatively affluent Fells Point.

Boom in modest houses

Over the past five years, Canton has experienced a real estate boom that has almost doubled annual home sales (from 174 in 1996 to 304 in 1999) and more than quadrupled building permits for renovations and construction (from 172 in 1995 to 706 in 1999), according to city records.

In a stock-market-driven era of prosperity when many Americans are demanding oversized houses, two-SUV garages and sprawling lawns, Canton's modest worker houses are multiplying in value despite their lack of parking, grass or trees.

The average price of a rowhouse in Canton has risen from $61,718 in 1996 to $101,331 in 1999. Home prices, 17 percent lower than the city average of $75,005 in 1996, jumped to 22 percent higher than the city average of $82,633 in 1999, according to sales data from Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc.

The population along Canton's waterfront has grown 36 percent since 1980, to 5,018, even as the city's has fallen by 20 percent, to 635,581.

The people flooding into Canton since 1995 tend to be in their 20s or 30s, single, from the suburbs and a few years out of college or graduate school. Others are parents in their 50s or older who want to flee suburbia after their children move away.

Amenities at a price

John Simmons, a 25-year-old television advertising manager from Atlanta, paid $222,000 last August for an 80-year-old rowhouse on Essex Street for which M & M Restoration Co. paid $20,000 in 1997. The company ripped out the inside of the vacant house and added a hot tub, hardwood floors, exposed-brick walls, a gas fireplace and a rooftop deck.

"I liked this area because real estate values are rising, there are a lot of young people, and it seems to be the part of the city where all the best night life is," said Simmons.

Many longtime residents say the success of the new bars and cafes is making Canton increasingly noisy and frustrating for parking.

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