Wagner’s Point was a company town built by Martin Wagner for the employees in his oyster and fruit packing plant. In 1883, Wagner relocated his canning plant from East Baltimore to the industrial peninsula of Baybrook (also referred to as the Fairfield peninsula or the point). He later added a wooden box factory, a tin can plant, and built one hundred East-Baltimore style row houses for his employees, primarily Polish immigrants.[i] The community had St. Adalbert’s Catholic Church, funded partly by Mr. Wagner, and a parochial school. The church offered mass in both Polish and English reflecting the tight-knit Polish American neighborhood developing on the point.
Wagner’s business was a self-sustaining industrial development with all aspects of production and labor located in a small piece of the peninsula, previously referred to simply as East Brooklyn. In 1897, Wagner’s Point had just over six hundred residents, a hotel, restaurant, general store and its own postmaster. The neighborhood was a six-block area of crushed shell streets, flanked by Poplar trees in every yard—the Wagner Company whitewashed their trunks each year. In the first decade of the twentieth century the Wagner’s Point population grew to almost two thousand.[ii]
In 1912, Wagner’s cannery burned down, resulting in over four hundred workers forced out of a job. Wagner’s sons continued the box plant but later sold much of the surrounding land to various industries such as oil and chemical companies. This shift from canning to chemicals began the slow downturn of Wagner’s Point. The culture of the isolated village of Wagner’s Point was integrally tied to the urban industrial model—even as the model itself changed over time.
Less than a decade later in 1920, a devastating fire at the United States Asphalt Refining Company broke out when two oil drums exploded after being struck by lightning. Flaming oil flooded the streets and thirty-two homes were destroyed leaving one hundred people homeless.[iii] Neighborhood residents persevered and benefited from the explosion of jobs during World War II. In addition, many new residents from areas such as Appalachia moved into the Polish company town to work in the plentiful war-industrial jobs.
Despite the potential danger posed by nearby industry, the point maintained a small-town atmosphere. With the lost of industrial jobs in the late-1960s the area went into decline. As the oil tanks multiplied and the sewage treatment plant next door expanded numerous times, Wagner’s Point began to lose its tight-knit community as residents died or moved away. St. Adalbert’s Catholic Church was closed in 1968, and the building burned down the following year.
In 1972, the last access to water—which was a value to residents who often fished or crabbed in the Bay—was completely cut off with another expansion of the Patapsco Waste Water Treatment Plant, which was located right next door to Wagner’s Point. A 1972 image in the Baltimore Sun shows children from Wagner’s Point protesting with fishing poles and a sign that reads, “Open those little ‘ol gates!”[iv]
The 1990 US Census shows only 613 residents on the peninsula (split between Wagner’s Point and neighboring Fairfield), 273 (44 percent) living below the poverty line. By this time, most of the residents no longer worked in the shrinking number of industrial jobs available on the point. The company town model had died as a national model for urban areas as it withered on the industrial peninsula. Or, as a Baltimore Sun journalist framed it, “Wagner’s Point is a company town which has lost its company.”[v]
There was hope in 1995 when the entire industrial peninsula was designated one of three Baltimore neighborhoods that formed an Empowerment Zone (EZ), a President Clinton-era urban renewal program that invested millions of dollars in an attempt to revive floundering urban areas. An “ecological industrial park” was planned for the peninsula but never materialized. From the start, the EZ was not really concerned with the residents on the point, only the development potential of the land. The EZ did provide residents with one essential service—legal representation.[vi]
In 1996 residents of Fairfield and Wagner’s Point formed the Fairfield/Wagner’s Point Neighborhood Coalition and signed a retainer with the University of Maryland School of Law. In the words of Brenda Blom, University of Maryland law professor and part of the legal counsel for residents, the neighborhoods were “engulfed” by industry.[vii] Working with their lawyers, a majority of residents decided that relocation was their best option to achieve some sense of justice.
The leader of the relocation effort, Jeannette Skrezecz, was a major community activist from Wagner’s Point who been working on environmental issues in the area for years. In 1998 in the midst of the protracted fight for relocation, Skrezecz was diagnosed with terminal cancer (common on the point) and died later that year. This sad event further galvanized the residents to seek justice through relocation. Shortly after loosing their impassioned leader, residents picketed City Hall and then received their first official meeting with the mayor on the buyout. Blom succinctly describes the success of the relocation effort as based in the residents “unwillingness to remain invisible,” which shows that a new way to see urban industrial space is essential to achieving justice.[viii]
Support for the Fairfield and Wagner’s Point buyouts came from federal, state, city, and private/industrial sources. In October 1998, Senator Barbara Mikulski secured $750,000 in federal funds for relocation of the residents of the point. Just days later, an explosion, fireball, and three-alarm fire resulted from malfunctioning equipment at a chemical plant operated by Condea Vista. Five workers were severely injured at the plant. The explosion was heard from miles away and shattered windows in the neighborhoods. Most residents, even previous holdouts, were amenable to relocation after the explosion.[ix]
By the end of 1998, the Neighborhood Coalition finally received a commitment from the city for relocation, and, in early 1999, the deal was struck for Wagner’s Point residents. To their credit, the leaders of the Wagner’s Point relocation worked with local industries to get a buyout for the last residents of Fairfield as well. Condea Vista and FMC put together a proposal to match a city offer for relocation in Fairfield.
The hard-won relocation package provided residents of the industrial peninsula with the hope of living free of industrial pollution and the fear of a cataclysmic industrial accident. However, the moment was bittersweet because residents had formed a tight sense of community out on the peninsula and it was the only life many people knew.
In 2001, when the Wagner’s Point row houses were demolished by Baltimore City, numerous old residents returned for one last goodbye.
By Prof. Nicole King
[i] In Wagner’s Point the houses were set up along a hierarchy of class. “Anglo-born managers” lived on the first and largest row of houses on 4th Street, referred to as “Silk Stocking Row.” Moving back the houses became smaller based on the lower position of workers. Patrick Gilbert, “Wagner’s Point: Front-steps kind of neighborhood,” Baltimore Sun, June 14, 1979.
[ii] Earl C. May, The Canning Clan: A Pageant of Pioneering Americans (NY: Stratford Press, 1937); Patrick Gilbert, “Wagner’s Point: Front-steps kind of neighborhood,” Baltimore Sun, June 14, 1979; David Brown, “Life in Wagner’s Point: Cut Off But Happy,” Baltimore Sun, December 26, 1982; Diamond and Powers, “An Environmental History of Fairfield/Wagner’s Point,” and Brenda Blom, “How Close to Justice,” 67-93.
[iii] “Hundreds Flee in Panic When Flaming Oil Fires Houses in East Brooklyn,” Baltimore Sun, July 20, 1920.
[iv] Photographs in Wagner’s Point folder, Baltimore Sun, 1972, UMBC Special Collections.
[v] Patrick Gilbert, “Wagner’s Point: Front-steps Kind of Neighborhood,” Baltimore Sun, June 1, 1979.
[vi] “A New Future for Fairfield,” Baltimore Sun, May 26, 1995; Van Smith, “EZ Money: Empowerment Zone Fever Takes Hold in Fairfield,” [Baltimore, MD] City Paper, May 17-24, 1995; Empowerment Zone vertical file, Maryland Department, Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore, MD; HOH Associates, Inc. “Fairfield Ecological Industrial Park: Master Plan,” 1996 (copy given to author by Larissa Salamacha of the Baltimore Development Corporation, 2011); Blom, “How Close to Justice?” 95-106.
[vii] Blom defines the “significance of being engulfed” on page 4 of “How Close to Justice?”: “All across America, there are communities that have been engulfed. These communities may or may not have been built as company towns, but their primary characteristics include that they: (1) are surrounded by industrial development (primarily chemical, petrochemical or hazardous waste); (2) face serious issues of emergency access; and (3) suffered a restriction or decrease of city services. Industrially engulfed communities, both urban and rural, all across the country and around the globe are facing similar situations.”
[viii] Blom’s unpublished dissertation is an astute insiders perspective on the relocation process that focused not only on the legal aspects of the case but also the social and personal lives of residents.
[ix] For a detailed, almost day-by-day, account of the buyout of Wagner’s Point and Fairfield, see Blom, “How Close to Justice?” especially pages 115-251. Also see articles by Joe Mathews in the Baltimore Sun during the late-1990s.