Fells Point, its history lusty, now looks prissy

MICHAEL OLESKER

November 12, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Just what makes that little old ant

Think he'll move that Rubber Tree plant?

Everyone knows an ant can't

Move a Rubber Tree plant.

Whoops! Wrong Rubber Tree! Wrong decade, too, it looks like. When Frank Sinatra sang about moving rubber trees, it was 1959 and the song was called High Hopes. Good thing he wasn't hoping for high maturity.

When the city's zoning board successfully moved what would have been The Rubber Tree out of Fells Point the other day, it was 1992 but seemed like about 1959.

The Rubber Tree was to have been a shop for selling condoms. In 1959, we couldn't have used the word condom, or its slang synonym, in a newspaper.

Such words were considered unfit for family readership.

Such sexual items were considered not only private matters, but slightly shameful.

This week, the zoning board decided they still are.

They wrapped their decision to reject The Rubber Tree in various legalisms and zoning ordinances, but nobody was fooled. This was about sex, and how it still makes us uncomfortable, and how one neighborhood wishes it would go away.

Fells Point, with its cobblestone charm and its lusty seafaring history, now wishes to be seen as a precious Georgetown.

That's fine enough, except that now they're looking like some prissy, suburban Levittown.

"It's a nice store," Frances Zeller said Tuesday, as she waited to testify against The Rubber Tree at a zoning board hearing. "But it's inappropriate for Fells Point."

Zeller is a tour guide for Baltimore Trolley Tours.

She said she brings thousands of adult tourists to Fells Point every year, many with children in hand, and worries that they will forgo the neighborhood's shipbuilding charms if they're forced to walk past the appalling site of a store selling birth control (and disease control, a subject complainants do not like to talk about, though various health officials do.)

Meanwhile, what are we talking about here?

In various city public schools, they're giving away condoms.

In several shops in Fells Point, you can already buy condoms, and lots more items.

A block from Broadway and Thames, where The Rubber Tree was to have located, is The Love Zone, a shop selling not only condoms but such items as Fundies ("the underwear built for two. Half the fun is getting in -- the other half is up to you"), sexual toys and various slinky lingerie.

The neighborhood is home to dozens of bars, at least two stores selling sexual magazines, and a historic attitude of live-and-let-live.

At Tuesday's zoning board hearing, though, such an innocent portrait of Fells Point was painted, you'd have thought they were talking about Disneyland.

"Try explaining a condom shop to families, to those who come here to see the tall ships, or the Christmas tree lighting," a resident named Charles Norton told the board.

While they're at it, somebody should explain about all those bars, or the people who fill them every weekend and bring a sense of life -- good and sometimes bad -- to Fells Point.

"Yeah," said Kevin Kelley, owner of Pranks A-Lot, a South Broadway specialty shop that carries certain sexual items. "They should bring some of these families down here 11 o'clock on a Saturday night and watch people puking in the street. I mean, what kind of image is that?"

Kelley's point is this: Those who live or work in Fells Point, or just visit there, have made a choice. The neighborhood has a certain raffish personality, which you may choose to find charming or not. If you do, then a condom shop is certainly not out of place. If you don't, take the kids to Harborplace.

But a larger point is this: It's 1992, not 1959. Chances are, the kids will either be oblivious to the purpose of a condom shop, or less threatened by it than their parents if they figure out what's being sold.

They're heard about condoms in school. They've been told why it's important to use them.

The worst thing about sex isn't the sense of shame that some people felt in 1959, it's the threat of disease that everyone feels in 1992.

In the face of that, selling condoms doesn't disgrace a neighborhood.

It says they're facing reality with a little inventiveness, and a sense of humor, too.

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