Raising the bar

Fort Avenue's blue-collar saloons, where residents socialized, groused and caroused, are giving way to bars catering to an increasingly gentrified neighborhood

May 02, 2006|By JOHN WOESTENDIEK | JOHN WOESTENDIEK,SUN REPORTER

Fifty years after it opened, the Victory Tavern had become a haunt for the defeated.

Outside, prostitutes paced past a stern, if grammatically incorrect, sign on the once-proud bar's peeling paint exterior. "If Your Not Buying," it warned, "Don't Come In." Inside, drugs were bought and sold, and the patrons were a glum, down-on-their-luck bunch.

Everybody didn't know your name at the Victory Tavern, nor did anyone really want to.

That was less than two years ago. Step inside today and you will find well-dressed, wine-sipping young professionals, two flat-panel televisions and lively discussions about mutual funds or the playful impertinence of the zinfandel - a scene so civilized you would think it was an entirely different bar in an entirely different neighborhood.

And, essentially, it is.

The Victory, as it was named after the outbreak of World War II, is now the Vine. The corner it sits on - Fort Avenue at Hanover Street - is changing as well, part of a neighborhood once considered plain old South Baltimore, but now increasingly referred to as "Federal Hill South."

What's going on along Fort Avenue and elsewhere in a changing Baltimore is gentrification: Young, moneyed professionals move in. Prices and taxes go up. Older, working-class residents move out.

What is gained in the transition is immediately visible - from roof decks to day spas, from coffeehouses to condos. What is lost along the road to historic Fort McHenry, first paved in 1852, is less concrete.

As quickly as Formstone gets peeled off rowhouses, old traditions disappear, character diminishes and cohesiveness crumbles. The sidewalks where families once leisurely sat on their front steps are blurred with health-conscious runners on a tight schedule.

Nowhere is the peninsula's change from blue collar to white more obvious than in its bars - the most recurrent feature in Fort Avenue's landscape.

Walk the avenue's two-mile length, through the neighborhoods of Federal Hill South, Riverside and Locust Point, and you will encounter two funeral homes, three dry cleaners, four banks and five pizzerias. In that same stretch you will find about 20 bars - fewer than there once were, but still nearly one every 10th of a mile. Only a handful, however, remain the same places they were just three years ago.

Just as the Victory begot the Vine, what was once a sleepy dive called Mox's Place late last year became Lime, an upscale tequila bar. What was a working-class bar called the End Zone is now the Idle Hour, a stylishly laid-back cocktail lounge with original art for sale on the walls.

Hartlove's, a blue-collar neighborhood bar, last year became Rafters, a sports bar whose new owners spruced up, added a full menu, installed new televisions and painted the bar's unusual interior walls - clad in Formstone, the faux stone finish normally seen on the exterior of buildings.

"I have no clue how it got there," said Elizabeth Hartlove, 61, who owned the bar, and lived upstairs, from 1988 until last year.

The answer lies further back in time, and each of Fort Avenue's bars - no matter how shiny and new it appears - has a history, some of it found in liquor board records, some in the recollections of owners and customers. For the bars left on the street today, more than 100 others have come and gone, their existence covered up like out-of-style wallpaper.

For many years, the transition from one bar to the next was hardly detectable. In the past four years, though, the changes have been more sweeping, and cut more deeply into the old working-class fabric of Fort Avenue.

Suddenly, or so it seems to old-timers, a new crowd, and a new class, has taken over. The beer costs twice as much as it used to, and that place where you met your spouse, unloaded your woes, forged your friendships, or sat and pondered life's questions is no longer your place. It's almost, some say, like having your living room taken over by strangers.

To barhop on Fort Avenue, from "up the hill" to "down the point," as natives say, is to see two faces of Baltimore, to bounce between two cultures - one that's growing, one that's shrinking; one that's moving in, one that's moving out; one that's focused on tomorrow, one that longs for the good old days.

The Vine

Sebastian Sassi is young, urban and professional. But please - don't call him a yuppie; Sassi finds the term divisive and thinks it is tossed about recklessly.

"There are all these reasons people hate each other already - because of race, because of religion. Do we really need to come up with more?" he asked between sips of wine.

Sassi, 31, understands what's behind the resentment some express toward newcomers - how property taxes have as much as tripled, how many people who grew up here have been priced out of the neighborhood.

"It's not a traditional family community anymore," he said. "But it is what it is."

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