Urban legend

Pente has spent his entire life in a one-block radius. In a world where many of us are transient, often crisscrossing the country to follow work or loved ones with our childhood homes a distant memory, this is awe-inspiring.
    He was born half a block away on Stiles Street, and grew up next door at 220 South High Street. After he married in 1936, he and his late wife Margaret moved to an apartment on Fawn Street (now an annex to Sabatino’s Restaurant). Purchased by his grandparents around 1904, the house at 222 South High Street was owned by his father, who passed it on to his son after Pente’s uncle died in 1941.
    At the time, it wasn’t much of a home. It was an instrument repair shop and a bachelor pad. But with the help of a few friends, Pente renovated the property and rebuilt it from the inside out.

From a forgiveably sentimental Baltimore Magazine profile published last year. I only learned of Pente today, in a notice about his death from the Baltimore Heritage Society. The Society — as the article tells — gave Pente the first instance of a new award, last year, for house love — for maintaining one home in the same family for more than a century.

* * * 

Little Italy,’ Pente’s neighborhood, is just east of the Inner Harbor, south-Baltimore focal site of the tourist-oriented downtown redevelopment begun when I was a child, growing up just a few miles further south in the working-class, commercial-strip suburb of Glen Burnie. Glen Burnie wasn’t a particularly nice place, I knew, but I also knew that where we lived wasn’t the city, that legend of tall fortress-office-buildings, too many black people, poverty, bad (read: not our) manners, and crime. The city, in truth so close (not only geographically), seemed in my ‘world-view’ altogether a world apart from mine. Old neighborhoods — much of what’s held to be charming about ‘Charm City’ — like Little Italy, in which families had taken pride and some, at least, still wanted to live out their lives, didn’t exist at all for me.

Those neighborhoods with their remnants of ethnic cultures were hardly a growth trend for Baltimore in the ’70s, of course. And they aren’t today, not in the historical way. ‘Mr. John’ Pente has had his bit of local media celebrity late in life not so much as the good man he was, known & appreciated by everyone within a few blocks of his home, but as a link to a once-common form of neighbor-life that may have many smart proponents today but that isn’t coming back (as surely, anyway, as the embedded idea of a parish being the heart of a neighborhood isn’t coming back). At least more of us seem to want to hold on to the memory of it, though, than did when I was a kid. Which is enough. The memory will serve.

3 Replies to “Urban legend”

  1. It’s possible I overstate. I think our interest in Mr. John goes mainly to the world of his younger manhood, but a long piece in The Sun yesterday sees the story in the last 10 years or so. I certainly can’t object.

  2. Wanted to look into the real estate story of the area with an eye on numerical trends, which I’ve never done, but I’m not finding time for it. Broadly, though, development/ redevelopment all around the Harbor has been a big success story of the last couple of decades. Here is a portion of it in brief, but a little satellite-view flyover alone will make a pretty strong impression, I think. ‘Federal Hill’, ‘Fells Point’, ‘Canton’, &c. are names that evoke upward mobility & proven investment potential now, where residents once worked docks & factories. Also true in areas outside of downtown & harbor to limited extent, but the most gentrified formerly working-class part of town is what Little Italy is in the middle of. Still, we’re talking about two-story rowhouses, not fine old avenue town homes. The numbers are in the site, not the house. I ought to look into the numbers sometime.

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