September 29, 2006


You hardly ever hear the term "Gold Coast" applied to Canton anymore. Canton isn't really all that golden. It's more a nice shade of bronze. Compared to the glitzy buildings that are going up at a frenetic pace in Harbor East, Harbor South and Harbor West, Canton is just a comfortable classic timeless kind of place.

Canton isn't really all that much about the coast anyway. The story of Canton in the 2000s is much more about how it is spreading inland. The coast provided an anchor and an impetus for renewal but little else. Middle class folks have chosen Canton to settle down after looking around Baltimore for a nice safe secure piece of real estate. Canton was not given a whole lot of high profile encouragement from the City government. It was more like folks asking themselves, "Where can I find a place that isn't likely to get screwed up by the violent forces of urban change over which I have no control?" Canton was the place.

Canton isn't about major big dollar cataclysmic urban renewal or transportation projects. It isn't about fabulous irreplaceable old architecture. It isn't even about major gut-job housing renovations.

The housing in Canton is rather ordinary. It isn't even standard ordinary. It's hodge-podge ordinary. It may have started out as the kind of crisp, uniform, standard issue "American Dream" sort of housing that later made Levittown famous, but like Levittown, the housing and the dreams they represented eventually became much more individualistic. In Canton, it happened first by covering the brick with formstone and adding various other adornments and additions, and is now most often expressed by that postmodern urban accessory - the roof deck.

Roof decks reflect the prevalent attitude that Baltimore looks its best when seen from above, where the fine grained problems of urban living blur out of focus. Cantonites don't sit on the front stoops a whole lot anymore, but they don't want to mow the lawn either. They don't even sit up on their roof decks all that much. They mostly just come and go with a private personal purposefulness of people whose neighborhood is a useful backdrop for their lives. In Canton, unlike most of Baltimore, the livin' is easy.

The public improvements that Cantonites have demanded are also modest. This has not always sunk in among the city planning types who were raised on Daniel Burnham's big plans. Canton didn't want anything more lavish than a Dog Park, to take care of their best friends, their dogs.

Another major landmark of Canton's social scene is the big Safeway supermarket, which looks like it was plopped down from the most banal of suburbs. But Cantonites go to be seen in their Safeway, whether they will admit it or not. The O'Donnell Square commercial area is much more tasteful, but the taste is definitely imported and eclectic - it is not the authentic preservation of some "genuine" Canton tradition from years gone by.

The Canton street system is a basic grid that works well as long as the traffic volumes are kept reasonable, which they are. Cantonites don't ride transit all that much and they wouldn't use a bigtime regional transit system enough to justify it.

The traffic improvements demanded by Cantonites are small. They are: (1) Angle parking, and (2) Four-way Stop Signs. It took a long time for the City to catch on, but grudgingly it appears that they now are beginning to. For Canton, these modest measures are more effective than the monster parking garages and overchannelized oversignalized intersections the City promotes elsewhere. They're just about all Canton really needs.

The great thing about Canton is that there are numerous potential Cantons all over the city. Canton's success could be replicated almost everywhere if people had any confidence that urban living could really work for them there.

The problem is that Canton-style urban living currently doesn't work anywhere else. Of course, unlike Canton, cataclysmic help is indeed needed in many areas of Baltimore. Many areas do indeed desperately need superior mass transit, which they are not getting. Not to mention good schools, safety from crime, drugs, etc. , etc., etc.

But Canton is a wonderful reminder that most folks don't ask for a lot, and can be very happy with what they have. Baltimore needs lots of Cantons to fill in the urban spaces between the gold coasts, the high density mixed use urban centers, the world class institutions and the unique extraordinary architecture. Hopefully some day we will.

As a result of low supply and high demand, housing prices are too high in Canton for the housing you get. This is not a consequence of some conspiracy by yuppies or developers or defective zoning laws. Since there is only one Canton, you simply have to pay the going rate to live there. People looking for a lower cost alternative are settling in other places such as Highlandtown. Hopefully, they're learning to like Highlandtown, which has its own unique charms, because they're not getting a Canton. It is really a shame that Baltimore has only one of those.

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