Domino Effect

By Jennifer Howard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 20, 2000

It's the end of another working day in Baltimore. Five p.m., and a shift at the Domino Sugar refinery down on Locust Point is letting out. Men with lunch coolers and electric-blue safety helmets come swinging out of the main gates, headed for home. Inside the plant, the shifts come and go but the sugar keeps coming, 24 hours a day most days. By this time tomorrow, another 6.3 million pounds of the stuff will have been processed and shipped out, via truck and train, to a nation eager for a sugar high.

At night, the big red "Domino Sugars" sign, literally the size of a basketball court, glows from the refinery rooftop. You can see it from I-95, from the aquarium, from the old 1900 Power Plant they've tarted up with a Hard Rock Cafe and an ESPN Zone. Like the Orioles, crab cakes and John Waters, the Domino sign screams Baltimore. It costs $100,000 a year to power and to keep the 1950s-vintage neon tubes in good repair. In this town, rich in the physical remnants of its working past, that's money well spent: a blazing reminder that people and machines still make things, that the world hasn't gone entirely virtual, no matter how much the Chamber of Commerce hypes the "Digital Harbor" and the dot-com future it hopes to house in the city's old factories and loft spaces.

If you drive around the harbor to visit Fort McHenry, famously associated with "The Star-Spangled Banner," you'll find yourself on Locust Point, the thumb of land that divides the harbor from the middle branch of the Patapsco River. It's here you see that this town still uses its muscles to make a living. Huge blue cranes stand high over the airport-size marine terminals maintained by the Maryland Port Authority. Tugboats trundle along the shipping lanes, heading out to rendezvous with ships bringing in petroleum, cars, bananas and raw sugar. Classic Baltimore row houses with marble steps shelter the descendants of watermen.

Walk the sea wall around Fort McHenry, at the very tip of the point, and if you can stand the stiff wind that comes off the Patapsco you'll get a fine sweeping view of the shipping business this place still does. The industrial horizons make a strange backdrop for the fort, a place of low brick buildings and wide green spaces, whose siege by the British during the War of 1812 inspired Francis Scott Key to write the national anthem. Freedom and commerce: two American mainstays, side by side in one of the country's oldest cities.

At the Domino dock, just across the water from the tinseltown amusements of the Inner Harbor, a Russian-owned freighter unloads a cargo of raw sugar--hundreds of tons of ground sugar cane--from Brazil. The ship is enormous, a skyscraper floating on its side, its red-and-white hull rising stories overhead. A man wearing a pirate's bandanna and no smile looks down from the deck onto a tour group led by Timothy S. Duprey, a Domino process engineer and a man who knows his sugar.

Duprey, in his early thirties, has dark hair and a young face and thin-fingered hands, which he uses a lot as he talks. Like the rest of us, he wears safety goggles and a hard hat, only he looks comfortable in his. Shoes stick to the pavement. The sweet smell in the air gets thicker, like cookies just starting to burn. Duprey's not happy with the Brazilian load: too dark, which means more impurities and more work to get it to that nice, white, flows-like-sand stage. Where does the best cane sugar hail from? "I can tell you that it doesn't come from Brazil." Not this week, anyway. He laughs but he's not joking.

A crane dips a clamshell bucket into the freighter's belly: eight tons a bite, and it'll take days to unload it all. Each bucketful gets dumped on a conveyor that runs into the Shed, a storage building as long as a football field, where a brown sugar mountain 30 feet tall rises slowly higher. Duprey points out the residue from an earlier load--Australian. Prime stuff, the color of coffee with too much cream. "Now that is a very nice sugar to process."

Sugar refining looks a lot like it did when the plant opened in 1921. To remove color and impurities, the raw sugar is softened, spun, melted, shot through with carbon dioxide, filtered, then recrystalized in vacuum pans and tumbled dry in 60-foot granulators (not unlike gigantic clothes dryers). Computers and automation have made the work easier on the back, which means that fewer backs are now required. A shift of 18 handles the actual refining. In control booths, workers in hard hats sit before computer monitors, gauging pressures and temperatures and rates of flow. Duprey's tickled pink about the computers. From the visitor's point of view, what's cool is how unfancy and stripped-down everything else looks, how used. You know you're in a place where something is getting done.

We clatter up metal staircases, through rooms ripe with heat and full of a machine hum. As we move along, the sweet smell changes from burnt cookie to something like fermenting yeast. Windows propped open show a spectacular view of the Inner Harbor. I'm more interested in what's inside: vats big enough to drown six people, centrifuges the size of washing machines. Inside them sugar spins from brown to pale as the impurities filter out. Hanging in a warehouse-size space, cisterns still bear the handwritten okay of the engineers who installed them 80 years ago. Eighty years from now, Domino may still be cranking out sugar here. The company will pump $21 million into its three Domino refineries (Baltimore, Lousiana and New York) over the next couple of years. Harborfront property would be too expensive to acquire elsewhere, so they're better off staying put in Baltimore, with easy access to water and transportation.

A visit to the Baltimore Museum of Industry, next door to the sugar plant, reminds you of how many factories haven't been so lucky. For a town of industrial firsts--first Linotype machine, first antacid, first standard disposable bottle cap--Baltimore has seen the last of too many enterprises. The museum stands as a memorial to all these, but a wonderfully hands-on one for those who like to play with equipment. While you learn about hot type and garment factories and old-style oyster canning, consider that Baltimore, close to Chesapeake oyster beds and Eastern Shore farms, used to have more than a hundred canneries; the last closed six years ago.

As manufacturers have decamped, postindustrial pursuits have filled those brick and iron halls. A former can-manufacturing plant now contains a Bibelot bookstore and the inevitable cluster of dot-coms. Mills that once produced cotton cloth shelter a Fresh Fields grocery store, a toy model maker and a health club.

Until the early 1990s, Procter & Gamble cranked out sudsy delights at its soapmaking plant on Locust Point, just down the tracks from Domino. Now the complex is being reborn as Tide Point, industrial-glam office space in buildings named after P&G products (Joy, Cascade, Ivory, Dawn, Tide) and adorned with the P&G logo, a white crescent moon and stars on a blue background (yes, the one that some conspiracy theorists see as a satanic code, though it looks harmless enough). Flower plantings pick up the corporate color scheme. Tenants so far include Shandwick International, a PR and advertising firm whose clutter-free, pipe- and chrome-lined offices would make any high-end minimalist drool, and Advertising.com ("Intelligent solutions for new media").

Workers of the new media hustle through this old-economy neighborhood down to the Tide Point dock and the water taxis that will whisk them across to the Inner Harbor. With their short-sleeved shirts and boots, they don't look all that different from the Domino Sugar guys, only they're wearing pagers and talking like people with a plan. Old economy or new, on this side of Baltimore's harbor there's something sweet in the air.

ESCAPE KEYS

GETTING THERE: The gritty, pretty factories of Locust Point loom proudly over the other side of Baltimore's harbor, 45 minutes north of Washington on I-95. To get to Fort McHenry, take Exit 55 (Key Highway); follow Key Highway half a mile, turn left onto Lawrence Street, left again onto Fort Drive; follow that to the end. Locust Point is easily accessed from the Inner Harbor via car or water taxi (see below).

INDUSTRIAL DESTINATIONS: The Domino Sugar Plant (1100 Key Hwy., 410-752-6150) offers tours by appointment only of the venerable (albeit updated) art of sugarmaking. The Baltimore Museum of Industry (1415 Key Hwy., 410-727-4808, open daily except Mondays; $6) has riveting exibits of the city's factory heritage. Harbor Boating (410-563-3901, www.thewatertaxi.com, $5 day pass) offers Water Taxi service from the Inner Harbor with stops in South Baltimore, including the TidePoint development and the Museum of Industry. Fort McHenry National Monument (east end of Fort Avenue, 410-962-4290; $5), scene of the inspiration for our difficult-to-sing national anthem, offers exhibits and a slide show of its flag-waving history.

EAT AND SLEEP: Have lunch en route from the Inner Harbor to Locust Point and the fort at Cross Street Market (1065 S. Charles St.; also accessible from Light Street), an old-fashioned covered market famous for shrimp steamed on the premises and salted down with Old Bay seasoning. It's easiest, perhaps, to stay and eat around the formerly industrial Inner Harbor--tuck into waterfront sushi at Kawasaki Cafe, (907 S. Ann St., 410-327-9400) for a swank view of the Domino refinery at lunch or dinner. The Admiral Fell Inn at Fells Point (corner of Broadway and Thames, 410-522-7377) is a historic, centrally located hotel with rooms starting at $175 per night.

INFORMATION: Baltimore Visitors Center, 410-837-4636, www.baltimore.org.


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