Fells Point could get priced out of personality

September 19, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The news is not so good today. Jack Trautwein stands there at Broadway and Thames in his three-corner hat and his stylish 19th-century outfit, and his voice splits the muggy afternoon air for a group of passing tourists. He has the very latest news from almost two centuries ago. In the ongoing War of 1812, the British are only 2 miles from Fells Point, and they aim to take over every inch of the neighborhood. In the year 2005, this can mean only one thing: The Brits will have to draw swords with every lurking real estate agent. This could get ugly.

The real estate agents are everywhere now in the city's waterfront neighborhoods, from Locust Point and Federal Hill over to the east side's Fells Point and Canton, where a task force has worked for months to update zoning in Southeast Baltimore. But nowhere is the nature of things changing with such cultural force as in Fells Point, with its mix of markets and stores and bars and homes.

"Oyez, oyez," Trautwein cries as he pitches bulletins from nearly 200 years ago. "The British have amassed 5,000 troops to the east, ready to advance here."

If they arrived today, they'd find a housing market like they wouldn't believe. It's one reason why Trautwein and others in this historic community are concerned with modern conflicts, with historic buildings being leveled to make way for bigger profits, and the neighborhood's traditional funkiness giving way to the kind of bland homogenization visible in countless American cities.

Trautwein's pitch draws a nice little gathering of tourists and suburbanites. They arrive here every day, for reasons that should escape no one: This cobblestone neighborhood still looks like the real thing. It holds on to considerable traces of authenticity. It has held off not only the state roads geniuses who wanted to bury it with a highway years ago, but most hints of American McDonald-ization.

This was never a neighborhood that reached for bland. From the beginning of the 20th century, it drew its personality from the mix of sailors and dockworkers and the newly arriving European immigrants who rented rooms in its stifling little rowhouses and walked to the markets and warehouses and the bustling port. They found work in the city's garment industry, or its canneries or packing houses, or in shipbuilding or steel making. At the Broadway Market, their voices carried across the aisles in nearly a dozen dialects.

Over the generations, they filled the neighborhood's taverns late into the nights, and some of the city's most colorful characters were created. They ad-libbed their way through each day. This was a place where the idiosyncratic was not only condoned, but encouraged. Fells Point wasn't an embrace of middle-class conformity - it was a defiance of it (at least, until you drove back to the suburbs after a night's bar-hopping).

Now, you walk through the neighborhood and see the mix of old and new. North of the Broadway Market, the Latino community has arrived in big numbers: beautiful. They are the exact descendants of all those Eastern Europeans who arrived here across the 20th century. They bring their hard-work ethic, their food and drink and dances, and in places like the former St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church, founded in 1792, you now have the Catholic Community of St. Michael and St. Patrick, with alternating Sunday services in English and Spanish.

Thus, the continuing American mosaic. Thus, the continuing character of Fells Point: of newcomers bringing their distinctive style of life to a place that always encouraged it, and everyone learning to mix.

But, across from the Broadway Market, you also find the Long & Foster real estate office. They hand you a list there: 75 different Fells Point homes, mainly rehabbed in the past few years, now selling for anywhere between $400,000 and $550,000.

This is fine in many ways. It says that, after years of running away from Baltimore, people want to return. It says there is value in city life. But longtime residents also complain that many newcomers arrive for a year or two, never put down roots, and sell high. No sense of community comes from such behavior. And when real estate prices escalate so drastically for housing, rents for commercial property also rise. Can small, funky businesses survive this, or do they inevitably yield to the upscale, the chain store, the boring?

In other words: Can you hold on to Fells Point's zest in the face of what passes, in many places, for progress? Nobody wishes to knock the current prosperity. The city welcomes all those discovering the delights of the urban mix, including out-of-town tourists who embrace the city's charms.

But this task force, working for months to update zoning across Southeast Baltimore, now passes its ideas over to the City Council, which is expected to vote on changes by the end of the year. What they must consider is not only profit, but soul. Where's the value if Baltimore's neighborhoods lose their authenticity and become just like any other city's neighborhoods?

michael.olesker@baltsun.com

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