A past of cans, future of ideas

Building: Work at the American Can Co. was grueling but down to earth. Now the reborn plant is an incubator for start-up companies where even the sky isn't a limit.

May 07, 2000|By Kurt Streeter | Kurt Streeter,SUN STAFF

For most of the past century what was made on the third floor was simple, definable product: Cans. They were stamped from sheets of metal, churned out with blunt efficiency: hundreds per minute, millions per week, hundreds of millions per year.

Working on the third floor of Building 3 of the American Can Co. on Boston Street meant you and your future were also definable.

You were union. Your job was to perform one repetitive, mind-numbing task, sometimes for decades. You worked on a floor that sometimes stole fingers and always sounded like a jackhammer: rhythmic, staccato pops that could be heard for blocks when the windows were open on summer days.

The raw material of the digital age, ones and zeroes, has completely changed the third floor of Building 3.

Today, what is created there is product meant to titillate the mind: information, sights, sounds. Abstract stuff packaged and managed and put together nicely, then sent out into the world, mostly through the Internet, for democratic consumption.

What's more, nobody working in the Can Company building now, in a dense neighborhood of 13 high-tech start-ups nestled there, seems to know what the future holds - except that the future feels like it will be big.

"We're all here looking for the same thing," says Chris Styles, 22, who worked there full time until last week and now consults for a bustling Internet firm on the third floor, creating interactive games and designing Web sites. "We're looking for the next big ... it."

In the parlance of this modern Canton worker, it is the ultimate undefinable product, an idea, a design, an Internet delivery system. Something not likely thought of yet, something shockingly good and shockingly useful.

"Who knows what we can create?" adds Styles, thin and fresh-faced, a young man who looks more like a drummer in a high school marching band than a key player in a multimillion-dollar design and e-commerce firm.

"There are no rules anymore. Whatever you can think of, you can make happen with these computers."

Of all the buildings and all the workplaces that point to the born-again nature of Canton - a neighborhood now driven by a buzzing Internet, design and service economy - none symbolizes change more than this floor.

Days of smokestacks

Since the early 19th century, Canton has been a cauldron of industry. Patapsco Guano Co. churned out fertilizer. Tin Decorating Co. molded specialty tobacco tins. Gibbs Preserving Co. packed fruits and vegetables.

But in the 1960s Canton's blue-collar job base began to lose ground to foreign competition and changes in technology.

Buildings told the story. The once-busy monuments to industry became ghosts and shadows, and their broken-down presence haunted Canton's shoreside.

Slowly, the buildings came alive again in the late 1980s and mid-1990s. Factories that had housed the fertilizer and tin companies, the fruit and vegetable packing concern, the dockside business where licorice was made into dyes, and many other operations were torn down or converted into condominiums and apartments. The village square on O'Donnell Street, down at the heels a few years back, swells with restaurants and hip bars.

And the third floor of Building 3 of the American Can Co. is now home to the Emerging Technology Center, a cluster of digital-based start-ups, each chasing a dream, each eyeing the ultimate business transformation: the day they may go public or be merged into a larger company.

Managed by Baltimore Development Corp., funded with public and nonprofit money, ETC is a high-tech "incubator."

Its small businesses are tucked inside a honeycomb of studios. Its white-and-plum-colored walls are a homage to modern design: minimalist, clean, angled and curving, somewhat sterile.

The companies here range from two-person operations to those with staffs of 30.

They are concerns such as ICUSA, which provides a computer network allowing people in critical care to be monitored by physicians at a remote location; Alpha Omega, a black-owned firm that creates Web sites for churches and black colleges; and CycleShark, a group of daredevils who claim they want to do for motorcycles what Amazon.com did for books.

What a difference a few decades make.

American Can Co. reached a peak in the mid-1960s, when 1,500 workers made the plant one of the most productive can-producing operations in the world. On good days, they'd churn out at least 5 million cans in 24 hours, then ship the product from Baltimore's port or on its train tracks.

But the can company's life span followed a trajectory repeated by most other industry in the neighborhood.

The company began whittling down its work force in the 1970s, a response to harsh economic realities and the changes technology created in the can industry, allowing companies to replace workers with machines.

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