A city tradition is drying up

Taverns: Once a fixture of working-class Baltimore, corner bars are falling victim to declines in drinking and population.

January 26, 2004|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,SUN STAFF

If you're the drinking kind, hoist a glass to old-line neighborhood taverns. Their numbers are shrinking in Baltimore. The reasons: People are not boozing as much as before, and many aging neighborhoods are emptying out.

In the smaller working-class neighborhoods around the Baltimore waterfront, where most of the city's liquor licenses are, taverns are fighting for survival. Or they are as long gone as the Drydock taproom on Key Highway, where condominiums replaced a shipyard, and Gandy Dancer, a McHenry Street bar that witnessed Baltimore's rise and fall as a railroad capital.

Jim Bass, 70, doesn't need a crystal ball to see where it's all heading.

"I can name 60 [customers] who passed away," he said at his bar at Wilkens Avenue and Dukeland Street, where fading photographs remind him of happier days, along with trophies won by the saloon's long-gone softball team.

Forty-four years ago, when he bought the tavern that dated to the early 1900s, the Wilkens Avenue corridor was a thriving German neighborhood of abattoirs and meatpacking plants. Union Stockyards was just around the corner. So was Mash's Hams.

Those major employers are gone. Recently, Bass and his wife, Eda, put their bar on the market. It's one of several nearby saloons for sale in an area that is scourged by boarded-up rowhouses, drugs and prostitution.

In the past eight years alone, Baltimore registered a net loss of 45 taverns, said Nathan C. Irby Jr., the city liquor board's executive secretary. And even though 517 taverns remain, inspectors suspect that total may be inflated. They say many inner-city taverns are nothing but Plexiglas-protected fortresses selling package goods, despite liquor board efforts to crack down on such misuse of licenses.

Decline began in '50s

The gradual disappearance of neighborhood taverns is not new.

The trend started in the 1950s, when civic reformers launched campaigns to get rid of rowdy bars and other liquor outlets, whose total had grown to 3,300 in a city that had swollen to 1 million during World War II.

Later, rapid suburbanization and urban renewal erased whole bar corridors. Among them was much of Pennsylvania Avenue, a famous black entertainment district during segregation, and a stretch of West Baltimore Street, between Fremont and Fulton avenues, that was popular with war workers who moved here from the Appalachians.

Clinton Dean, 82, who lives in Union Square, remembers that one particularly troublesome spot in that latter area was known as the "bucket of blood."

In more recent years, so many once-popular watering holes have closed that a 1986 book, 501 Bars Around Baltimore, reads like a cemetery map.

Some places, though, seem to go on for ever.

Patrick's, at Pratt and Schroeder streets, is one such saloon. It has belonged to the Rowley family since 1847, and it has operated at its current location since 1862. It claims to be "America's Oldest Irish Pub."

"McSorley's is 20 years younger than us," Patrick Rowley contended from behind the handcrafted 1860s bar desk, referring to the famous Lower Manhattan alehouse.

Venice Tavern, at Conkling and Bank, is another survivor. It has not changed much since 1934, when it reopened after Prohibition was repealed. A picture of Franklin D. Roosevelt behind the cash register pays homage to the president who made it possible.

"Everyone is welcome as long as they behave themselves," said owner Frank DeSantis Jr., 70, who was born upstairs and whose father had a saloon there before the country went dry. His welcome seems to be sincere; for a Baltimore bar, Venice has an exceptionally wide-ranging mix of ethnic origins and backgrounds among its customers.

Neighborhood changes

The fate of a corner tavern is closely tied to its neighborhood. Any change, good or bad, may have unforeseen consequences.

This can be seen on Hanover Street. Two blue-collar draft-beer saloons, Victory Tavern and Jungle Inn, closed there recently, victims of galloping gentrification on the fringes of Federal Hill.

The former is to reopen under a new name as a "wine garden," according to neighbors and the liquor board. The latter will be remodeled into a residence along a street where real estate prices have soared in recent years.

A neighborhood's decline can have equally profound consequences. Joseph C. Chapman, 71, could talk about that for hours.

In 1988, after working there for the previous 23 years, he bought Maceo's Lounge, a celebrated hangout since the late 1950s, when African-Americans first crossed into neighborhoods above North Avenue.

"This was the meeting place for politicians, lawyers, doctors, musicians," he said, recalling the heyday of the bar in the 1900 block of Monroe St.

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