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A stranger in the familiar, yet strange new land of Baltimore


IT DAWNED ON ME one Wednesday evening a few weeks ago. I was standing on Boston Street near the old licorice factory. It was 6 o'clock and the place was buzzing with little cars. Their drivers were intent on getting to health clubs and gyms. I soon realized this was the new Canton I'd heard so much about.

Almost once a week there is some sort of story about how the blocks around Baltimore's harbor are changing. It's one thing to read of this, it's another to find yourself in the middle of a much changed but still familiar landscape.

In what seems like a few months - helped along by today's prosperity - another chunk of old Baltimore has gone through a transformation. All of a sudden, there's a row of small stores, a couple floors of apartments and enough 20-somethings in exercise clothes to film a commercial for Spandex.

For a minute I wasn't sure I was actually in Baltimore, then I looked around and saw the twin towers of St. Casimir's Catholic Church and found my bearings.

Just down the way was the newly relocated Bo Brooks crab house - and several cars of similarly confused people in search of dinner. I was glad to see I wasn't the only person in need of a landmark to guide me.

I think one of the reasons this part of the local geography has been so successful is that there is a lot of parking available. The old factories, canneries, packing houses, railroad sidings and wharves once so busy here took up a lot of space. Now that much of these industrial underpinnings have disappeared, there's room for all the SUVs that are drawn to these locales.

I came here in search of a very Baltimore custom, an evening's cruise down the harbor on a church-sponsored trip. Harbor cruises, where you can gain admission only through a club or organization, are like oyster roasts. You have to be a member or know a member to buy a ticket.

I had promised myself I'd get out on the harbor more this past summer than I actually did. I rode a water taxi on a glorious late May afternoon - and never got back again until the nights were growing dark so quickly in September. Scarcely three months had passed, but the harbor held an array of changes and new sights.

The old Procter & Gamble plant, now called Tide Point in the Locust Point neighborhood, swarmed with construction workers.

As the night lights came on, it was obvious the familiar complex of 1920s industrial buildings was making the trip into the 21st century in a bold and confident manner. One of my fellow travelers that night was moved to observe: if only the vast stretches of East and West Baltimore would have a similar promise of new jobs, jobs tailored to the needs of those neighborhoods.

Across the water, a wonderful old Fells Point coffee warehouse is finally being restored after decades of costly neglect. Sitting on a hook of land that curls into the harbor, the warehouse should make a worthy entrance portal.

But of all the recent changes, the part I liked the best was the harbor itself. Despite the stories detailing the woes of the maritime community here, the harbor was full of freighters and cargo carriers. The scoops dipped raw sugar from the hold of a bulk carrier at the Domino plant. The piers at Clinton Street, outer Canton, Dundalk Marine - they were all full - a reassuring contrast to all the buffed and perfect bodies of the new Canton.

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