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Growing up and growing old in Canton

O'Donnell Street is named for John O'Donnell, who as a young man got into the shipping trade, and after finding success, purchased a 1,981-acre plantation that he renamed "Canton" — the neighborhood in southeast Baltimore carries the name to this day.
O'Donnell Street is named for John O'Donnell, who as a young man got into the shipping trade, and after finding success, purchased a 1,981-acre plantation that he renamed "Canton" — the neighborhood in southeast Baltimore carries the name to this day. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

As I write this, I think about the many Baby Boomers, like myself, who grew up in Canton and stayed. Now, more than a half century later, I reminisce and reflect on what was and what could be.

The physical changes across Canton are astounding. The death of Formstone and all its concrete cousins, plus the addition of all those status symbols — the rooftop decks — have made quite an impact. I left the concrete icing on my house, but with a twist — I painted it — and for the life of me, I could not bring myself to create a patio on my roof. Some have hot tubs and grills and are lit-up year round, something we never dreamed of “back in the day.”

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Our back yards have become parking pads, not gardens, and I’m amazed how a car can make it up the alley (if you have a wide enough alley) and make that turn in and out of your pad. Parking? Don’t even get me started on angle parking and bike lanes and one-way streets. Remember, most of Canton was developed long before the automobile multiplied across our country. So now the average home may have two or more cars on streets where there really isn’t enough room, period! Most of us find ourselves almost being held captive to a time slot when we can go out, come home and still have a parking space available.

These are but a few of hte changes that a native Cantonite has lived through over hte past decades. Are we happy? Yes, I’m glad to see our neighborhood thriving, evolving and for the most part reinventing itself.

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Looking around my immediate couple of city blocks, I remember a shoe repair shop, two grocery stores (one delivered call-in orders), a seafood store, a bakery and a dry cleaner/tailor shop, all gone now. But what has flourished are the bars/taverns, now known as pubs and boutique restaurants. I remember my father hitting a number of the bars walking home from work way down in the real industrial parts of Canton. Today, the recently migrated Cantonites drive back to the new “uber rich” Canton and then take their walk to the pubs, thus avoiding a DUI. Hell, my father was decades ahead of the curve.

What I don’t see or hear are a few things that I need to bring to light. I rarely see kids playing outside — no one in the schoolyard. Canton P.S. 230 across the street from my home is closed and has been for a few years, and the large schoolyard is now an overflow parking lot. With everyone enclosed in their homes all year long you don’t hear the church bells anymore, nor do you see folks sitting out front on those beautiful white marble steps. No one is going for snow balls on a hot July night or “rushing the pot” and sending one of the kids up to the corner bar. That part of Canton no longer exists.

It is sad that those things no longer exist because it really is those little things that make the neighborhood real. Knowing everyone on your block. Saying hi out front and across the fence in the back yard. Calling next door and letting them know it just started to rain and they better bring the clothes in off the line. Shoveling a path out front for your more senior neighbors during a heavy snowfall. What seems to be the norm is park the car, head down, up the steps, in the house — bam!

It is great to see all the financial improvement going into these 100-plus-year-old houses by our new families but not to see them flee to the outer burbs once the children are school-age. Time to turn that around, and in Canton it could be done! Financially speaking, we see what is happening through the Boston Street corridor, which was once an oil refinery and coal yards. Now look at it, look at the growth. We can’t waste this moment. If the city wants to keep this enclave viable, now is the time to act. Let’s get Canton a world class elementary school with an active community center as well as a rec center. When should the city start? Yesterday! These new Cantonites chose this area for all the right reasons, possibly because they wanted to be in a nice tight fit/warm feeling neighborhood. So theyv’e done their part, now the city needs to do its part. New homeowners will stay only if hte city provides step one — a good school. Our city needs to know that the engine that drives migration is the quality of the school system.

We can have a new Canton community, meaning a social group sharing common characteristics and residing in the same locale. Growing up here and growing old here is basically living contented. There is a lot of potential here in Canton. In fact, it is phenomenal to those of us who’ve lived it and want our new neighbors to stay and enjoy it like we have.

Roland Moskal, Baltimore

The writer lives in the Fait Avenue home his grandmother bought in 1904 for $540.

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