Canton improvement comes at a price


Remember the American officer in Vietnam who famously said he had to destroy a village in order to save it? Welcome to Boston Street, on the west side of Canton, where they're beginning to understand such language of contradiction.

Take Harry Lewis, for example. He's sitting by the window of Harry's Cafe Mediterraneo, which he opened in July 1995, and pointing to a crater in the street that could be spotted on a clear day from the moon.

"See that?" he says. "You could fit a whole car into that, and that's the thing that's killing us."

Or take Dino Profili, who owns the Canton Market a block south.

"Business during the construction?" he says. "Down 20 percent. Maybe 25 percent. Our regular customers say, 'Who needs the aggravation?'"

"Aggravation?" says his partner, Louise Mullaney. "Listen, the workmen first tore up the block, and then they paved it nice, and now they're tearing it up again."

Or take Patti Hutchison, manager of the Safeway grocery a few blocks farther south on Boston Street. You've got to maneuver among various work crews, around several barricades and slide through a maze of turns if you want to get to Safeway's parking lot. But, to be accurate, the lot hasn't actually been there when you get there.

"We haven't had a parking lot since we opened for business," Hutchison says wistfully. The store opened in August. "But they tell me I'll have one next week."

The cause of all this dismay is roadwork on Boston Street that started nearly a year ago and isn't expected to be finished for maybe another 18 months. It begins early each morning and ends around 6 p.m., after the last of the rush-hour traffic has been forced to stagger along the waterfront stretch at such a slow, plodding, frustrating pace that many people don't want to return even when the street's cleaned off for nighttime traffic.

When everything's done, the new Boston Street, from its northern end all the way to the Beltway entrance several miles south, will have four smooth lanes and a median strip. It's part of the good things arriving in Canton - with its remnants of 19th-century brick rowhouses and churches and new, upscale condos and apartment complexes - that make it one of the city's truly promising areas.

But, until the roadwork's finished, it's doing some awful things to businesses on the Boston Street main drag - some of which may not survive the huge trucks, the jackhammers, the tearing and shredding of the street and the potholes, and the traffic jams that make people look for more relaxing places.

"I understand that it's progress, but it's killing us," Harry Lewis says now, peering through his restaurant's front window. On one side he's got a bar that does pretty well at night, and there's a dance club for young adults on the other side.

But the restaurant, having opened to lovely crowds and wonderful word of mouth, has since been clobbered. The once-thriving lunch business is no more, and dinner business has almost vanished.

"Five o'clock, people go home, it takes them 20 minutes from one corner to another," Lewis says. "So the workmen clean up an hour later and the street's OK, but people think, 'I'm not going back to that mess.'"

From October to January, they had to close the restaurant. In January, Lewis had to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. He reopened on St. Valentine's Day. It's still a struggle, though the food and the atmosphere are a delight.

"We were turning over the dining room three times a night before this," he says. "We'd do 200 dinners, maybe more. Now, maybe 25. We had regular customers who came in, put their feet up on chairs, talked to each other across the room. They knew each other from coming down so often. You see anybody now?"

Only at one table, where a half-dozen young women have made a special evening of it. Lewis says he's spoken to city officials, who are sympathetic but don't exactly have a solution.

"You watch them," Dino Profili says now, from his Canton Market. "They'll dig a hole, fill it up, then dig the hole again. And they're always hitting something. At least once a month, everybody around here loses their electric, or the gas, or the plumbing goes out.

"Everybody talks about their business being way off. From 3 o'clock to 6 every day, you've got backups out here like you wouldn't believe."

At the Safeway, there's land set aside for 300 parking spaces. The store, only 8 months old, has 56,000 square feet. It's big and brightly lighted and beautifully stocked. It lacks just one thing: crowds.

There's been room for only limited parking until now because city workers were putting in a storm drainage system and using the lot.

What makes all of this particularly ironic is that so many good things are happening in Canton, from waterfront homes and night life, to rejuvenation of neighborhoods east of Boston Street, to the new businesses on their way to old factories like the abandoned American Can Co.

It'd be a shame to destroy part of the new Canton life, in order to save it.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad