The Fells Point Fun Festival Was City's Coming-out Party

October 07, 2006|By JACQUES KELLY

It must have been a remarkable day that Sunday in October 1967, when as many as 25,000 people descended on Fells Point.

It was very much in the spirit of the 1960s, a happening, and probably one of the most telling but poorly interpreted events in the city -- one that would play out in years to come.

The Fells Point Fun Festival was the inauguration of an urban preservation movement that continues to this day. I see it in all the city's waterfront communities. And it holds promise for the Middle Branch, Westport and, let's face it, the condos planned for the grain elevator in Locust Point.

This week, I spent a sunny afternoon at a table at Bertha's with Bob Eney, who was part of that day. The occasion was the next annual installment of the event, which will be held today and tomorrow, rain or shine.

We recalled that Fells Point was in deep trouble in 1967.

For about a decade, city government had been debating and plotting an interstate highway route through Baltimore. Fells Point and Federal Hill were to be obliterated.

A small group of activists thought otherwise and formed the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill, Montgomery Street and Fells Point.

The early months of that year, 1967, must have been a time of great urban thinking. I can think of several events: Lu Fisher had the meeting that got the preservation society going; activist Grace Darin coined the name Charles Village; and downtown, the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre opened in Charles Center.

The Fells Point Festival was the idea of Roland Read, a newspaper reporter turned publicist for Armco Steel who died this past August. Read believed that a small band of ardent preservationists needed to think big and take their act public. He dreamed up this street carnival to tell the world that Fells Point existed -- and show what it was all about.

Then, as now, Baltimore was a city of neighborhoods -- and those who dwell in them to do not always know what's going on not so far away.

"Not everybody thought the festival would be a good idea," Eney said the other day. "I didn't want it, but Roland did. He was determined." The day set for the festival was Oct. 8, 1967. The original advertising flier noted that it would be held "in the square at the foot of Broadway."

Some of the early preservationist propaganda got to the point, saying that Fells Point and Federal Hill "can be developed into our city's most outstanding attraction or it can be destroyed to make way for an ill-conceived expressway, an action which has been likened by one of our country's leading architects to taking a pair of shears to a priceless tapestry."

The Sun's coverage told the story: "Fells Point Throws Splash Party, Thousands Sample Art, Music, Food in Area Now Under Shadow of Expressway."

Julian L. Lapides, then a state senator, was quoted as saying of then-City Council President William Donald Schaefer and Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin: "The nerve of McKeldin and Schaefer! To push [for the] destruction [of] this area is a disgrace."

Others thought so, too. The neighborhoods were soon placed on the National Register of Historic Places, much to the horror of the city bureaucrats who wanted their road. Eventually, the Fells Point and Federal Hill people won their point, and soon the tax assessments bore witness to their wisdom.

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