Part 1: Merry Christmas

Photo: Library of Congress

I grew up delivering the News American. You never made any money; always had to chase your customers to get paid… – Raymond Bahr, Baltimorean

Ray Bahr, a proud son of old working class Canton living with vigor amidst the gentrification of New Canton, has a holiday gift for you.

Bahr has commissioned a series of stories documenting the rich and briny history of the southeast Baltimore neighborhood going back to the 18th century when the Safeway supermarket at Boston Street and Lakewood Avenue was a creek where wooden ships were built.

The most fabled of those was the U.S.S. Constellation, a 38-gun frigate – narrow of beam and long on keel – launched with the help of slave labor in 1797, the first American Navy vessel put to sea.

“I love Canton and its full and true story has not been told,” said Bahr, a retired cardiologist born 80 years ago in old City Hospitals, now Hopkins Bayview. “Most of the people living here today don’t realize how important the neighborhood was to the entire state of Maryland.”

With an earnestness befitting his generation, the sort of thing you might expect George Bailey to say about Bedford Falls, he continued: “I grew up when Canton was the best place in the world to live with jobs for anybody who wanted to work.

Image of U.S.S. Constellation by sneakerdog via Flickr

“Later on it became something of a white ghetto and now you see what we have — party town.”

Highlighted by the founding of the Canton Company in 1828 and its legacy through the 1960s, the stories will chronicle life past and present as it has been lived east of Chester Street, south of Eastern Avenue, north of the harbor and west of Conkling Street

And because it is Christmas – 2015, some 113 years after Cardinal James Gibbons blessed the founding of St. Casimir parish – this first installment remembers the holiday as it was observed along the narrow lanes between Boston Street and Patterson Park.

My mother – Gloria Jones Alvarez – was born 81 years ago this month in the home her family owned since the turn of the last century, 2729 Dillon Street.

On December 13, 1934, her seamstress mother, the former Anna Potter [1911 to 1996] and father, brewery work Willie Jones [1907 to 1971] went out to do Christmas shopping, most likely in Highlandtown.

By the time they returned with their packages, Anna was yelling for the mid-wife.

“Every year at Christmas the same baby doll I played with would be under the tree again with its dress freshly cleaned and pressed,” remembered Mom, who was baptized at St. Casimir, made her First Communion and Confirmation there and in 1952 walked down its majestic center aisle in a bridal gown to marry a Highlandtown boy who converted to Catholicism for the occasion.

“The same baby doll and one new gift,” she said, recalling how much she enjoyed walking to St. Casimir with her mother on Christmas Eve and singing hymns in Polish at midnight Mass.

Just the other day, she sang a verse or two as best she could remember but has forgotten the meaning of the words.

Frank Bittner, originally from Curtis Bay, the Polish colony on the other side of the harbor, recalled that December 23 of 1978 (just the second month of Pope John Paul II’s reign) was an especially mild evening.

“It was the first and so far the last time that musicians and carolers on horse carts brought the annual East Baltimore Christmas all the way from the Polish Home on Broadway to St. Casimir’s on O’Donnell Street,” said Bittner, who last organized the event (now in it’s 45th year) in the mid-1980s.

Saint Casimir
Saint Casimir Roman Catholic Church

“Once we arrived at the church, the carolers and the St. Casimir’s choir took turns serenading each other, singing in English and Polish.”

Wee Parker-Stachowski, remembers walking in the early 1950s from Canton to Goldenberg’s at Eastern Avenue and Haven Street in Highlandtown (where a Walgreens now stands) to sit on the lap of a “skinny, smelly Santa” in a soiled red suit. His beard, she said, was especially disgusting.

Though St. Nick was having a rough time of it (perhaps he’d had an especially late night at Aggie Silk’s, Lakewood and Hudson, when it was still a working man’s bar) he still brought young Wee the pair of roller skates she asked for.

“I strapped those metal skates onto my black and white saddle shoes but on Kenwood down near Boston Street it was still cobblestone and streetcar tracks which made skating a challenge but skate I did,” said Stachowski, whose mother lost her home at 1117 South Kenwood Avenue in the mid-1960s when the city seized many blocks of rowhouses for an expressway that was never built

Looking back on the fun she had, Stachowski said, “After the city covered up those cobbles and tracks with blacktop, this Canton girl could make those metal wheels smoke!”

Which brings us to the childhood Christmas memories of Ray Bahr; the man who doesn’t want people to forget – if they ever knew in the first place – that Canton was long the industrial heart of a city that made things.

[With all due respect to Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point plant, may it rest in rusted peace.]

Born in 1935, Bahr’s youth represents a significant strata of long-ago Canton families who, though never hungry or without shelter, didn’t have it so good. His was a rather harsh, Dickensian childhood described as one of “poverty and paucity.”

“I grew up poor, my parents moved to Canton from Back River so I could go to a school close by to where we moved on Bouldin Street, 1016 South Bouldin street, it’s still there,” said Bahr.

One of four children, Bahr lost his father at age five, his mother – Mary Fries Bahr – then seven months pregnant with his sister Mary Ann. The elder Bahr, a laborer at the Koppers foundry and, according to Ray, somewhat unstable mentally, went missing one day in 1940 during one of his frequent “long walks” down along the waterfront.

Raymond D. Bahr. Photo: Macon Street Books
Raymond D. Bahr. Photo: Macon Street Books

“They found his body in some woods at the foot of Haven Street,” said Bahr, citing the mystery as the cause of the family’s descent. “We were sustained by neighbors.”

What memories Bahr has of holiday goodies and toys prior to the end of World War II are connected to “show for poor kids” at the Hippodrome Theater, an annual charity event sponsored by local businesses.

“We’d see a show, maybe a movie and some tap dancing and get a stocking stuffed with apples and oranges and one toy,” he said. “One present that I really liked was a small chalkboard with colored chalk. I would spend Christmas Eve drawing and erasing and drawing again.”

If he still had that chalkboard today, this is what Ray Bahr might write upon it in red and green chalk: “Merry Christmas, my beloved Canton, from the bottom of my heart…”

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