An accidental exploration of Canton and Little Italy

By JACOB TOOK | September 13, 2018

B2 YourWeekend MadonnariSidewalk

Courtesy of Jacob Took.

 A street painting serves as a promotion for 2018’s Little Italy Madonnari Arts Festival.

I found out about the Madonnari Arts Festival in a pretty unusual way. I was just trolling around online looking for gay stuff happening in Baltimore to include in LGBTQ Life’s weekly email. I’m not sure why Madonnari, an annual street art festival in Little Italy, was listed on an LGBTQ calendar, but it piqued my interest.

Little Italy is an incredibly unique neighborhood in the City. It feels like Baltimore, because it is Baltimore — it has the row homes, the friendly residents, the endless array of cafes. But it also has a distinctly unique feel, like a little transplanted slice of Italy that adapted to fit into the surrounding city.

The neighborhood has been almost entirely populated by Italians since the 1920s. Most of the storefronts and buildings have witnessed over a century of Italian culture that has thrived for generations in the community.

The Madonnari Arts Festival seemed like a perfect microcosm of that community: a local celebration of Italian culture on the streets of Baltimore that also brings in artists from around the world. I had already explored the neighborhood a little, but I thought that Madonnari would be the perfect way to get a new perspective.

On Saturday, I woke up to a cold, cloudy morning. Against my better judgement, my friend and I decided to Uber to the festival as we were getting impatient waiting for the bus.

This turned out to be a fateful decision. There was a mix-up with the driver, and he dropped us off in Canton, a good 45-minute walk from our destination. Bummed (and more than a little confused), we evaluated our options: call another Uber to take us to Little Italy or seize the chance to explore a new part of Baltimore.

We were both game for the walk. Along the way, I realized I’d never spent much time in Canton. It’s like Fell’s Point but much more spread out. The streets are wider and bigger, and the houses are flatter, so that from a hill you can see down to the harbor.

And as we walked through Canton’s residential streets, my annoyance at the Uber driver who somehow left us three miles from our destination dissipated. I realized how rarely I just walk through the neighborhoods of the City, particularly those parts that aren’t immediately adjacent to Homewood.

Baltimore is a beautiful city. And I did not learn that on my walk from Canton to Little Italy. But as we passed street after street of row houses, and even when we walked through the industrial developments north of Fell’s Point, I was reminded that the City is more than what I’m used to seeing every day.

We stopped at OneDo Cafe on Canton’s west side and sat down across the street from a produce distribution center. Soft pink and bright purple murals of bananas and apples were painted on the brick around the loading dock. An industrial loading dock is not what I imagine as a beautiful place, but seeing those murals, like the ones spread around the City, worked a little charm on me.

It started raining while we walked to Madonnari. By the time we arrived, most of the artists had covered their designs in plastic sheets and stood at the side of the road under umbrellas, waiting out the storm.

We were disappointed, to be sure. But under a marquee, a band played upbeat Italian music, and people crowded around under umbrellas dancing and chatting. Despite the rain, the street was bursting with color and bright faces.

As we walked along the street, I tried to get an inkling, or maybe an impression, of the works of art that lurked beneath the plastic layers. A skeletal figure holding a bouquet of bright pink flowers, a diverse group of women with their heads bowed in prayer, a pair of young girls with beaming smiles.

I found myself eyeing the houses, cafes and restaurants that lined the street, wondering if I would be able to get a glimpse of the bright, colorful lives inside. Is that too much of a reach?

I’ve long since stopped paying attention to the houses I pass while walking through Remington or Mount Vernon. They have become the backdrop for my life in the city that I too often take for granted.

My impromptu exploration of Canton and the walk to Little Italy reminded me of one thing that makes Baltimore so beautiful: It is a city to explore and a city that rewards explorers.

Every neighborhood has a unique history and culture. Every part of the City has its Madonnari, where residents come together and celebrate their community. As Hopkins students, we miss out on a lot of that.

At the end of the day, I can’t properly recommend Madonnari because I didn’t properly attend Madonnari. Instead, what I will never stop recommending is that you, as Hopkins students, seize every chance you get to explore new neighborhoods, meet new residents and make new memories around Baltimore.

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