One man's vision saw beauty in an ugly city

October 10, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The newspaper is a quarter-century old now, and has never left Edwin F. Hale Sr.'s possession. On a drizzly Friday morning last week, he clutched it in his hands as he gazed from his office and beheld the difference made by time and money and belief.

The faded newspaper declares, " ... and Baltimore the Ugly."

The old paper, The Sun of April 14, 1979, carries an artist's rendering of Boston and Clinton streets when all pride had vanished: upended old cars lie about in various states of humiliation alongside rusted train tracks and an oil-slicked harbor. Now, as his eye carries from this site all along Boston Street with its new homes, its marinas, its restaurants and taverns, the once-dismal old property is Hale's considerable piece of East Baltimore's municipal miracle.

"There it is," he says, holding up the old newspaper drawing and comparing it to today's geography. "Look, out there in the water, that's the same crane."

But almost everything else has changed, including the Canton Crossing enterprise right across the street, for which, on Thursday, Hale watched as a crane hoisted the final steel beam into place on the 500,000-square-foot tower that will become headquarters for his First Mariner Bank, as well as upscale homes, offices, shops and a 450-room hotel.

For historically working-class Canton, it's the most dramatic sign of the gentrification that has swept through that neighborhood over the past decade. For Hale, it's also a reminder: not only of the 26-year journey from "Baltimore the Ugly" to an area with promise that's still being developed, but a recollection of where so much of his own remarkable journey started.

An east-side working-class product himself, he'd put together a small trucking company operating out of a trailer when he spotted the "Baltimore the Ugly" lot back in 1976. Scraping together every asset he had, and considerable chutzpah, he bought the 5.3 acres for $170,000.

"The newspaper was right - it was ugly," he says. "I'm driving down Boston Street one day, and I look at all this junk out there. The Penn Central Railroad owned it. Everything was rusted and broken and hanging down. I made my way through all the junk, and looked across the water, and I could see the flag flying at Fort McHenry. I thought: Wouldn't it be great to have a place like this, with that view?"

What's remarkable isn't just the vision, but historical context. Much of Baltimore's business community was heading for suburbia back then, convinced that the city's best days were gone. In the ensuing years, Hale's built his business empire - which now includes his bank, his Baltimore Blast soccer team, a large residential development he's proposed in nearby Greektown, and Canton Crossing - largely inside city limits.

When he bought the "ugly" property, he took out all the old railroad tracks at Clinton Street and sold them for scrap, and began clearing out the rest of the rusted junk. Mayor William Donald Schaefer got wind of the changes. He summoned Hale to City Hall and said the city wanted to buy the property from him.

"We met in this big ceremonial room," Hale said. "I'm a young guy, I'm sweating, I'm nervous, and Schaefer's sitting there like the Pooh-Bah in The Mikado. He says he wants to buy it. I say, `It's not for sale, your majesty.' I think he liked my attitude."

And Hale liked Schaefer's price. The city paid $2.3 million for the property. It marked the beginning of the resurgence all along Boston Street, and the beginning of Hale's astonishing financial run. He parlayed the money into an expanded trucking operation and shipping business and, years later, the $100 million Canton Crossing venture - for which Hale has put up about $50 million of his own money.

"This intersection," he says, meaning Boston and Clinton streets, "was the start. And, in its day, it was the epicenter of being humble."

He says this with his voice raised now. We're standing on the top floor of the shell of Canton Crossing, on this windy, misty morning. Though gray clouds cover everything, the view is spectacular: not only for the grand sweep, but the sense of change in so many places around Baltimore.

"Down here," Hale says, "well, you didn't get more humble than Canton. The railroad boxcars going through the middle of Boston Street. Clinton Street, which was like the Burma Road. This property [next to Canton Crossing] was the old Exxon refinery. We had to get all the oil out of the ground and water before we could develop it.

"You know," he laughs, "there's a fine line between risk-taking and thrill-seeking. And I was bumping up against thrill-seeking. But I felt like it was worth the risk."

It's become part of that Boston Street stretch where new homes now start on the north side of half a million bucks, and pleasure craft dock all along waterfront once polluted by heavy industry. It's the morning after the final steel beam's been laid in place on Canton Crossing. It was Hale's risk, but it's a considerable part of a city's thrill as it finds itself stirring back to life in one neighborhood after another.

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