Canton's center is getting new look

The Baltimore Sun

The centerpiece of one of Baltimore's hot waterfront neighborhoods is about to get a facelift.

O'Donnell Square, at the core of the Canton business district, hasn't had serious work done since the 1970s, and the community association thinks it's about time for a new look - particularly since the neighborhood is moving upscale.

The renovation is slated to begin this fall, according to Kia McLeod, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Department of Recreation and Parks, and be completed by the spring. Recreation and Parks will solicit bids from contractors in September, she said.

"There is a tremendous amount of development going on," said Victoria Stewart, a member of the Canton Community Association who is helping lead the project. "If this is allowed to decline any further, people aren't going to want to come and look at dead trees."

In the past two decades or so, new condos have sprung up in Canton, trendy restaurants have opened their doors and old rowhouses have been redeveloped and topped with roof decks.

But in the neighborhood square, bricks are broken and the grass is more yellow than green. Benches have faded to a sickly beige, decorated only with duct tape. One hollowed-out stump has become a receptacle for discarded Starbucks cups and Pepsi bottles.

Recreation and Parks has designated $100,000 for the makeover of the park, which is flanked by Messiah English Lutheran Church (motto: "On the square since 1889") and a former firehouse built in 1902.

The goal is to create an upscale park, said Stewart. Weathered benches will make way for wrought-iron ones, the lawn will be resodded and the two grass ovals in the square, which currently resemble large speed bumps, will be leveled to the height of their curbs.

The community association has proposed new trees and bushes where old ones have died. A fence adorned with local maritime artifacts will go around the statue of the area's founder, John O'Donnell. He guards the square from a perch at the park's center, extending an arm as if to show off all that his neighborhood has become.

Knockout roses, known for their jazzy colors, will be planted at O'Donnell's feet and a garden will go at either end of the square. Engraved bricks, which are being sold to community members to raise money for the project, will surround the gardens.

Green movement

The renovation of the square is part of an effort in Baltimore and across the nation to inject more green space, or recreation areas, into sometimes-bleak urban landscapes. Baltimore's Parks and People, a nonprofit organization underwritten in part by government funds, will contribute $5,000 to landscape the square.

Canton grew out of O'Donnell's 18th-century plantation and gradually turned into a busy industrial neighborhood. The first Whig convention was held there in 1840, and the Enoch Pratt Free Library branch built in 1886 is still in use. Two large canning factories and several breweries set up shop.

"This was a very middle-class, hardworking neighborhood when it started," said Margie Policastri, 57, who lives in the Canton home where her father was born. She remembers a neighborhood full of German and Polish immigrants who had separate churches and spoke their own languages.

Enormous redevelopment has characterized the past 20 years or so. Property values have shot up. Policastri paid $236 in annual taxes when she bought her house in 1972; today she pays more than $2,700, she said. Younger folks came in and stripped rowhouses of the Formstone that was introduced in the 1950s. Condos were built and restaurants moved in. O'Donnell Square became the pathway for young urbanites crossing from car to bar.

The square was originally a market, which closed in the 1940s. Catherine Smertycha, 56, has lived in Canton since she was 8 and remembers the square in the 1960s when it was a concrete slab with a kiddie pool near the firehouse and a basketball court near the church.

Her husband - at that point just her boyfriend - played ball there regularly.

In the 1970s, three buildings on the square went up for sale, she said. The asking price: $30,000 for all three.

Smertycha has seen her neighborhood boom and fade and boom again. She watched Doc's Pharmacy, which sat on the square close to the church, become a coffee shop and most recently Coburn's Tavern and Grill, an Irish pub with regular DJ nights.

"For a while it seems like Canton was at a standstill," she said, "but now it's growing by leaps and bounds."

The O'Donnell Square visible today was fashioned in the late 1970s. The pool and basketball court made way for the grassy areas and brick walkways that have since fallen into disrepair.

The renovation of the square planned for the fall is a reflection of what Canton has become.

"Canton was a place you had to drive through from [Interstate 95] to get to Fells Point," said Patrick McCusker, who opened Nacho Mama's with his wife on the square 14 years ago. Since then, he's opened a second restaurant nearby. "Now it's a destination."

A lot of the prosperity has to do with development, he said, but it also has to do with the cooperation between residents and local businesses. "For a long time we've really worked together," he said.

The community association is in the process of creating an official business association so people like McCusker have a formal way to contribute to the square's upkeep.

Smertycha described Canton as a city neighborhood with a small-town family feel. She remembers when one of the local librarians was transferred to another branch, and neighbors came out to express their disapproval. "They marched and everything," she said.

But lofty property values encouraged many longtime residents to sell their homes. Some who remain in Canton say the influx of youngsters has undermined the village feel. Many couples move in, get pregnant and then head off to the surrounding counties to find different school systems, said Policastri, who remembers O'Donnell Square before anyone used that title, Now Canton is "more of a stopping ground for people who want to have a good time in their 20s and 30s," she said.

New vitality

But Smertycha said changes haven't completely stripped Canton of its neighborly feel. If anything, they have given the area new life. Stewart, who is actively shepherding the square's facelift, has only lived in Canton for four years.

The square's renovation will be a community effort. Stewart's goal is to have everything done by May, when Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse Inc., a real estate development company that has renovated much of Canton, wants to hold a service day to landscape the park, she said. McCusker's restaurants will provide the food and drinks.

A steward program is starting up for volunteers to care long-term for the square.

"From an environmental standpoint, you just can't keep developing all the property," said Stewart, who crosses through the square several times a day. "There is so much in the city that can be reused."

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