Under The Influence

September 10, 1995|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Sun Staff Writer

It's 9 p.m. on the hottest night of the year, and the streets of Fells Point are already jammed with Volvos and Jeeps lured to this waterfront enclave from as far away as Pennsylvania and New York. The suburban foreigners park just feet from restored 18th-century rowhouses, clamp their anti-theft clubs onto their steering wheels and head for one of the neighborhood's many bars. Little do they suspect that behind the red brick facades are residents hiding from them, barricaded behind double-paned windows to shut out the noise -- if not the public acts of indiscretion.

The residents know too well that before the night is over their beloved red bricks -- cleaned and repointed -- will be soaked with urine. They will consider it a good night if that's the only act of vandalism in a neighborhood whose history of political dissent, violence and public drunkenness stretches back 200 years.

These die-hard city dwellers have been fighting the proliferation of bars for 20 years. But the watering holes, with their satellite dishes and imported beers, just keep coming. Yet another, called Parrot Island, opened in August and other proposals to build "megabars" in the area are still on the table, despite a legislative effort to ban the large, open-air restaurant-bars on the waterfront last spring. In Fells Point, residents don't want tiki huts and palm trees blighting their historic community, where Frederick Douglass caulked new ships before escaping from slavery just blocks from today's most popular bars.

Residents say they can't handle any more: any more illegal parking, drunken driving, underage drinkers, vandalism and noise. They resent intruders for behaving as they never would near their own homes.

By nightfall on July 15, the invasion has begun. The 102-degree high of the day has ratcheted down only a few degrees. The air is still, and the heat bounces back off the streets of Belgian blocks and tightly clustered rowhouses, turning the neighborhood into a pizza oven with its own zip code.

Outside Jimmy's, where the locals eat Polish hot dogs for $2, a desperate-looking woman offers passers-by a pair of plastic lady's shoes for $5. Behind her, white limousines circle the square. Out of one jump six young women, all blond and wearing mini-dresses. They giggle and -- off to Thames Street.

Farther up Broadway, Ken Mayleaf, 37, and Mike Flynn, 35, from Anne Arundel County, take in the fashion parade of thin young women in short dresses and strapping young men in hiking boots and running shoes. Mike bluntly calls them "yuppie scum."

The two have come here for years, for what Mike calls the "density of bars." He compares Fells Point to a 36-hole golf course where you get a drink at each hole.

It is a drinker's paradise, like no other place in Baltimore. There is one liquor license for every square block from Central Avenue east to Chester Street and from Baltimore Street south to the harbor. That's 113 liquor licenses in 114 square blocks. Ten bars in a single block. More than 7,000 drinkers when the bars are at capacity.

Mike and Ken are here to do their part -- and have only 4 1/2 hours left before the bars close. They head up Broadway.

More than before

When homeowner Maryrose Whelley complains there are too many bars in her neighborhood, the bar owners say she should have known better than to move to Fells Point. But she always has a ready reply: "They say, 'You moved next to a pig farm and you complain about the smell.' I say, 'When I moved here there weren't as many pigs.' "

The 44-year-old computer programmer arrived 22 years ago, out of college and looking for an adventure. The house she rented on Shakespeare Street was among 117 buildings in the path of a highway that would have obliterated half of the area named for shipwright William Fell. Following a long tradition in Fells Point of protesting the political establishment, Maryrose Whelley and her neighbors fought City Hall, and won. It would turn out to be only the beginning.

She bought her house from the city for less than $6,000, peeled off the old paint, repointed the bricks and grew accustomed to having fresh fish, ethnic restaurants and moonlit views of the water all within walking distance of her home.

There were rowdy bars to contend with then, but something changed about 10 years ago. Ms. Whelley recalls the defining moment. "I'm trying to remember when I saw the girl in the Saab 9000 with vanity license plates from Delaware crouch in front of my house and pee."

Soon after that she noticed a frightening change in the attitudes of the patrons. "Early in the '80s, if people were being rowdy and you asked them to be quiet, they would, but now they want to beat you up."

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