Hale project illustrates this tale of two cities

January 29, 2002|By Michael Olesker

WHEN EDWIN F. Hale gathered a few friends together last week to mark his newest little business venture, the $100 million Canton Crossing complex, involving nothing more than offices, stores, banking, restaurants, a waterfront promenade, a 17-story office tower and condominiums - all at Boston and Clinton streets, and all of which will likely bring more than 1,000 jobs and continued rejuvenation of the city's east side - he turned to a guy and said:

"If there aren't any murders today, we'll get news coverage. If there are, we won't."

Let the record show this: In the next day's Sun, Hale's Canton Crossing got pretty good display on the front page of the business section - and the newspaper's only mention of murder was bail refused some 19-year-old kid accused of fatally shooting a father of two who had tried to stop his car from being stolen.

So it goes in the two worlds that make up the city of Baltimore.

In Canton, we have the continuing renaissance of high-end waterfront homes, of energetic night life, of young people from suburbia discovering a sense of community previously unsuspected, and of great bursts of commerce popping out all over the place.

In other words, a precise reflection of the rejuvenation going on in such waterfront neighborhoods as Fells Point, Federal Hill and Locust Point - and a precisely opposite image of countless residential neighborhoods whose decay continues, defying all good government intentions, all money and all efforts at redemption.

"People from the suburbs are gonna be moving here," Ed Hale was saying yesterday, at the Clinton Street office where he oversees First Mariner Bank, and his transportation businesses, and his soccer team. By "here," he meant Canton specifically but the city in general.

"Thousands are gonna come," he said. "Thousands, that's not an exaggeration."

This comes, of course, from a guy who's always bucked the trend. One of seven kids born to working-class Highlandtown parents, raised in Edgemere, graduated from Sparrows Point High, he took some courses at Essex Community College but didn't stick around long enough to graduate.

Then he got into the trucking business, started his own trucking firm, then his own shipping firm, a little bank - all of which blossomed and all of which grew out of Hale's corporate offices on Clinton Street. That's important. In a time when all manner of city businesses and residents were flocking to the suburbs, he stayed.

In fact, he lives in Canton, practically within walking distance of the Canton Crossing site that for years has been marked by hulking oil tanks and toxic waste. A quarter-century ago, when he had to fight to get the city's Planning Commission to approve his first truck yard on Clinton Street, it turned off a Boston Street that nearby residents described as a miserable "Burma Road" of potholes and dust.

Not many people envisioned marinas or condominiums then - or a $100 million Canton Crossing complex.

And, at the end of an era in which the city was losing a thousand people a month, it's instructive to hear Hale talk of "thousands" of people returning to Baltimore.

But there it is.

"People say to me, `Should I sell my house?'" Hale was saying now. "I say, `Hold on.' I've been telling 'em that for years. And what's happening? The values are going up like crazy. Canton's so hot now that Highlandtown's calling itself Canton. And you see young people moving into Highlandtown now the way they are down here."

This at a time when the city is still afflicted by crime, still reading the morning paper to see which dope dealer smote which other dope dealer. But distinctions are made: There is a livable city, and a difficult city; a safe city, and an unsafe city; a city working and thriving, which crosses all the old racial divides, and a city self-destructing, which also crosses racial lines.

At the Canton Crossing ground-breaking ceremony last week, Mayor Martin O'Malley was sufficiently enthusiastic to throw his support behind a new cruise-ship terminal there.

"There's no better site than this," the mayor said.

He may be right. But it's also a fact that three other sites have been proposed: the former Allied Signal property off Inner Harbor East, Tide Point in Locust Point, and Port Covington.

A city with no future doesn't have four different developers looking to throw money into luxury cruise-ship terminals.

"Just imagine," Hale was saying now, "what it would do for Baltimore to have these big ships docking here. Think of the tourists walking along the waterfront, the restaurant and bar business, the money all over the place. And it's coming. It's coming."

It's the world of the city that's thriving; it's the city we hear about when we aren't ducking from the sound of gunfire - however distant it may be.

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