But on Saturday, no one was complaining. They were lit up by nostalgia — hugging, guessing at names, lingering at the displays of black-and-white photographs.
"My house!" said Joe Pollio, pointing to a snapshot of rowhouses. "Right there. That's 901 H Street."
He lived in the town until he joined the Air Force in 1961, then returned for a short while to work at the complex's railroad. Now he lives inSt. Michaels. But it's easy, so easy, to call his childhood to mind.
The sweet shop. Fields for football and baseball. Crabbing on the Point. Paying 10 cents for a token to take the streetcar to Dundalk, though you hardly had to leave — the town had everything.
Well — except for alcohol. Rufus Wood, who designed the town in the 19th century, was a teetotaler. But you could buy elsewhere and bring it in, and Pollio remembers his grandfather walking two miles with a gallon jug to the nearest bar, filling it with beer and trekking back.
"It would never come home completely full," Pollio said with a grin.
Ann Tousley Odachowski, who sat next to him in elementary school, looked at a photo with her rowhome in the background and was hit by a wave of longing. "I wish I could show my grandkids where I lived," said Odachowski, 71, who moved away when she married in 1959.
Maryteresa Sakowski Bressler, who grew up in nearby Edgemere and spent much of her childhood in Sparrows Point, understands that feeling in a way few can. Only those who have lost their entire home towns.
"It's like your childhood has been wiped off the face of the earth," she said.
You can't simply drive through Sparrows Point these days. Signs declare it PRIVATE PROPERTY. But Odachowski snuck in once and saw what remained of her town. Only the curbs that once lined the streets. "And the trees — the same trees."
The town's layout encapsulated the country's divisions in both class and race. Managers lived in the section with the fanciest houses. And for decades, the rank-and-file white workers lived in one part of town while African-American employees lived on the other, not meeting even in the theater or on the beach.
Eddie Bartee Sr., who worked at Sparrows Point and was active in the fight for civil rights, grew up on the African-American side. In a 2002 interview for a steelworker oral history project, he said there was "no question" that Bethlehem Steel discriminated — but he has very fond memories of the town.
"We would probably still have been there now because it was an ideal community in those days," Bartee, who stayed until the very end in 1974, told interviewer Bill Barry. "People didn't lock their doors."
When evictions began two years earlier, about 5,000 residents were living in Sparrows Point. Bethlehem Steel said it needed the space to expand. And Hall says he's sure it was a financial drain on the company to keep all the homes and buildings maintained.
But the abrupt end was hard on residents, including Hall's mother and stepfather. They paid $23 a month to rent their two-bedroom bungalow. One-bedroom apartments near the mill were renting for four to five times as much, he said.
"There had been people who had been living there for several generations," Hall said. "The company really didn't have a safety net for them, they didn't give them counseling, they didn't say, 'Look, we'll help you figure this out.' They just said, 'Get out.'"
Saturday's reunion was the third Hall has organized. He says it will be his last. The town's still-living former residents are aging — Hall, 32 years old when demolition began, is now 70 — and he doesn't like the thought of gatherings petering away to a handful of survivors.
But three times a year, he gets together with four good friends from the town. That, he'll keep on doing.
"We tell the same ol' stories about the same ol' people," Hall said. "Just keeping the place alive."