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With much of its industry long gone, hard-working Canton is being changed


Within a week, two sets of friends told me that they were moving to Canton, the old Southeast Baltimore neighborhood on the edge of the Patapsco River.

Then came word from George Ciscle that his art gallery, The Contemporary, would be mounting a large show at the old Canton National Bank building March 19-May 28. The exhibit features the work of Beijing-trained painter Hung Liu. It is entitled, "Can-ton: The Baltimore Series."

It is an interesting event. A former bank building has been transformed into a temporary art space, one that specifically makes references to this neighborhood. The artist was born in Changchun in northeast China.

The Baltimore neighborhood of Canton was named after the Chinese port city where local merchant John O'Donnell had made a tidy fortune from goods he imported to Baltimore in August 1785. His ship brought back canisters of tea, table sets of blue china, satins, velvet and silks, umbrellas, elegant wallpaper, cinnamon, rhubarb, opium and boraz.

O'Donnell bought thousands of acres of land along the Patapsco, built a house and hoped to see the area developed as a kind of early industrial park for shippers. He got his wish. In time, there was even a Canton Railroad to serve all the district's plants, warehouses and maritime terminals. Canton became synonymous with hard-working Baltimore.

In time, block after block of workers' homes came, too -- each featuring Baltimore's white marble steps.

John O'Donnell's statue stands proudly in Canton Square -- on O'Donnell Street, of course -- the commercial heart of one of Baltimore's better kept secrets. Canton remains a solid neighborhood where the alleys are cleaner than most suburban streets.

The north-south streets rise from water level and gradually climb up to what seems like a mini-plateau along the Eastern Avenue-Patterson Park axis. The elevation makes for some good harbor views. OK, it's not San Francisco, but there aren't any earthquakes here.

It is also a neighborhood of quiet landmarks and expansive vistas across the harbor toward Fort McHenry. One of my favorite sights in these parts are the twin limestone towers of St. Casimir's Roman Catholic Church as well as the 1886 Enoch Pratt Free Library Branch 4, both on O'Donnell Street.

It is hard not noticing several new restaurants and pubs that have opened on O'Donnell Square. It is hard not to wonder if this won't be Baltimore's next hot neighborhood. Certainly, the exposure the Can-ton art show will give Canton the neighborhood will not hurt.

The old bank building at the northwest corner of Clinton and Elliott streets presents itself as the epitome of a solid-looking neighborhood thrift institution.

On the Clinton Street side there's a faded motto, "Money is power. Keep your power here."

In 1930, shortly after the place went up, Frederick A. Dolfield was its president. M.R. and E.E. Bramble were officers.

Those familiar with the secrets of Baltimore banking often marvel at the savings capacity of the old Southeast Baltimore neighborhoods.

Homeownership, paid-up life insurance policies and bulging savings accounts were hallmarks of the Polish, Irish, Welsh and German immigrants who lived on these streets.

These were the neighborhoods that paid cash and let other people worry with charge accounts.

The old Canton National Bank had quite a few commercial customers. We forget how busy the neighborhood was each workday when the steam whistles sounded at the Tin Decorating Co. (now apartments called Tin Deco Wharf), the J.S. Young bark extract firm (it produced licorice), and numerous fruit, oyster and vegetable packers.

Today the only survivor of the packing houses is Mrs. Manning's hominy canning plant. This relic of old industrial Baltimore is several blocks north on Clinton Street from the Canton Bank art exhibit.

Canton in 1995 is a neighborhood in transition, with many components of hard-working Baltimore still in place, with elements of a new neighborhood peeking around the corner.

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