Unimagined growth hides just around the corner


September 01, 2001|By JACQUES KELLY

ON A WARM and hazy afternoon this week, I found myself sitting in a blessedly non-air-conditioned spot in Canton in Southeast Baltimore. The scene was new to me, the recently opened Rick's Cafe Americain on O'Donnell Square, a couple blocks east of St. Casimir's Church.

Midway through a bowl of chili and a salad with pine nuts, I couldn't help think about a summer afternoon I lingered in the same spot in the late 1970s. A city construction crew was moving an ancient market shed building to a new location. The market, which once stood in the middle of O'Donnell Street, adjacent to the churches, banks and the Pratt Library branch, was long closed.

That day 20-plus years ago I questioned what would become of this neighborhood. O'Donnell Street was fairly plain and immaculately clean: I recall an old drug store that had stopped offering prescriptions and was selling mostly cigarettes and a Venetian blind shop that seemed to be open only by appointment. There may have been a laundromat.

On this singularly depressing summer day in President Jimmy Carter's era, the neighborhood appeared to be on borrowed - or stagnant - time.

I would never have predicted the transformation of O'Donnell Square, with its row of pubs and restaurants. As my waitress explained to me, the idea at Rick's Cafe Americain was to create a restaurant similar to ones in Fort Lauderdale, with windows open to the outside breezes. Other businesses - I can think of Helen's Garden Cafe - do the same thing. Breathing the air of old Baltimore isn't such a bad thing.

I lingered over lunch as long as I could in hopes of keeping the summer going a little longer, then took off for nearby Boston Street and the harbor. The trees along whatever north-south street I was traveling had grown mature and graceful, creating a shady canopy over the asphalt. I spotted the silhouette of a couple of big ships in the distance and thought to myself that our city possesses an insidious way of surprising and appealing.

And, I would add, of reforming and renewing itself - often where you least expect it. The pieces of the city puzzle were fitting together in Canton as if dovetailed by scores of master planners, architects and genius developers. I don't think it happened this way at all. In the case of the Cafe Americain, all I think the owners wanted to do was indulge their passion for the movie Casablanca, which is obviously their delight.(My brain is still on vacation at the end of summer, and I started musing about the first time I ever saw Casablanca. It was perhaps 1967, at the old Aurora Theater on North Avenue, just off Charles. The 1942 movie was then being re-released for yet another generation to enjoy.)

If I'd had to make a guess 20 years ago, I would have predicted that the upbeat and bouncy revival that is now transforming Canton would have visited North Avenue first - in fact, many years ago. But, alas, it has not.

And indeed, there are holdout sections of Baltimore, many old neighborhoods that are caught in inertia and a bad case of the 1970s. But as I reached for a few French fries, my lunching friend couldn't handle, I thought: If it happened on O'Donnell Street, why not North Avenue?

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