East of the Harbor; Little Italy

by Tamar Jacobs

A pleasant walk over the lovely footbridges of Baltimore's Inner Harbor Complex takes you into a neighborhood of fascinating contrasts -rich in history and tradition, sprinkled liberally with Baltimore's renowned quirkiness, and at the same time, fairly bursting at the seams with 21st century glamour and swank.

On a clear day, the gleaming exterior of the elegant new Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel reflects sunbeams bouncing off the water, while the old warehouses along the water's edge are being transformed day-by-day into hip eateries, stylish boutiques, inviting coffee shops and cultural attractions. Here you'll find the Baltimore Civil War Museum, on President Street; the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture just a few blocks away on Pratt Street; the Maritime Museum on Pier 5 and the Baltimore Shot Tower Museum on Fayette Street. Not to mention the totally unique Baltimore Public Works Museum on Pier 7-where an old pumping station built back in 1911 has been restored and refurbished and now offers exhibits, video presentations, interactive computers and "Streetscape: an outdoor maze of drains, conduits and pipes for kids of all ages to explore..." -Bet'cha can't wait! Seriously, it's a fun place, really!

Baltimore's rich history begins in 1729 when it was founded by the governor of Maryland, then an agrarian colony and home mostly to farmers of tobacco and grain. With its sheltered harbor and central location on the eastern seaboard, Baltimore grew into a thriving port and over the years the waterfront became crammed with factories and packing plants like the McCormick Spice Company, Domino Sugar, the Baltimore Bag Factory, and the J.J. Lacey Foundry.

Massive piers jutted out into the harbor where merchant ships loaded and unloaded. Shipbuilding, steel working, canning and other heavy industries boomed. The Civil War Museum is housed in the old 1849 President Street Railroad Station. The train that transported twenty-year-old Frederick Douglass to freedom in New York embarked here. It's also the spot that brought thousands of Italian immigrants into Baltimore directly from Ellis Island.

When Giuseppe Garibaldi shook hands with King Victor Emmanuel II in 1861, Italy became unified and tremendous upheaval ensued, displacing thousands of Italians. Many fled to America, some settling in neighborhoods right next to the train stations where they disembarked. One of these neighborhoods is our own Little Italy. St. Leo's Roman Catholic Church was built in 1880 and it has been central to life in Little Italy ever since. As The Great Fire of 1904 devastated downtown Baltimore, Little Italy's residents watched the flames approach from St. Leo's bell tower. They gathered round and prayed to St. Anthony that their church and neighborhood be spared. Miraculously, the fire stopped right outside of the northeast border of Little Italy, and the neighborhood was saved. Every year since, the annual St. Anthony Festival gives thanks to St. Anthony for answering their prayers.

St. Leo's houses the Father Oreste Pandola Cultural Learning Center, where continuing adult education courses are offered in everything from Italian language and cooking, to pasta and wine making, to card game playing. Nancy Pelosi, who recently became Speaker of the US House of Representatives, walked to school at St. Leo's from her house around the corner on Albemarle Street. Today, spirited games of bocce still take place at the Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr. Park nearby, named for Nancy's father. D'Alesandro served three terms as Mayor of Baltimore, but in Little Italy they still refer to him simply as "Big Tommy," no doubt to distinguish him from Nancy's brother, Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, who also served as Mayor of Baltimore.

St. Leo's is hardly the only place serving up food and culture in Little Italy. More than twenty restaurants fill the twelve square blocks of this charming inner city neighborhood, making it a world-famous destination for hungry visitors. You might think so many restaurants, so close together, would breed a sharp sense of competition but quite the opposite is true. Most of the restaurants in the neighborhood are members of The Little Italy Restaurant Association, a marketing cooperative formed by the owners of three of the oldest in the group: Vellegia's, Sabatino's and Chiapparelli's. The annual "Taste of Little Italy" takes place here every fall. Italian music, dancing, beer, wine and great food make for a terrific day of fun and Old World camaraderie. The group also sponsors the Little Italy Open-Air Film Festival on summer Fridays and the annual Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony in December. There's a colorful world of history, pride, culture and tradition packed into these 12 small square blocks.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore waterfront has been transformed from a gritty industrial harbor to a sparkling and modern tourist destination. Today the old American Can Company factory is a trendy mall and the Piers of Baltimore Harbor are home to some of the city's newest hotels and restaurants.

Little Italy and the waterfront neighborhood of Harbor East, reflect the spirit of Baltimore -a delightful mix of tradition and innovation, of regional personality and worldly sophistication. One thing is for certain, a walk around these beautiful neighborhoods is sure to deliver delicious food, and a better understanding of the people and the times that have helped to build Charm City.


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