Thousands celebrate Fells Point

40th festival honors neighborhood's distinctiveness

October 09, 2006|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,sun reporter

They ate and drank and shopped yesterday on the cobblestone streets that weave between the pubs, shops, restaurants and rowhouses, all of which would have been cleared years ago to make way for up to 16 lanes of highway asphalt.

With the clouds gone and temperatures climbing into the 70s, thousands of people flocked to the 40th annual Fells Point Fun Festival to celebrate a distinctive Baltimore neighborhood.

Children scampered across the decks of fire boats docked at the pier. Dancers and singers entertained from several stages. And crowds of festival goers squeezed through the streets, which were lined by food vendors and retailers hawking jewelry, T-shirts, ethnic clothing and other wares.

"It's a celebration of being able to enjoy Fells Point for what it has been able to maintain itself as," said Paul O'Callaghan, a Dublin, Ireland, native who manages Kooper's Tavern, Slainte Irish Pub and Woody's Rum Bar on Thames Street.

Noting that the festival was first held four decades ago to draw attention to Fells Point's battle against plans to build a 3-mile stretch of highway through Southeast Baltimore to link Interstates 83 and 95, O'Callaghan added, "That probably wouldn't have been as good for us down here. It would have really changed the integrity and character of the neighborhood and the city."

The first festival, held Oct. 8, 1967 in the square at the end of Broadway, attracted 25,000 people, according to news reports at the time. Plans to level the neighborhood to make room for the highway were scuttled after the area's working-class communities, a newly formed preservation society and a social worker-turned-activist named Barbara A. Mikulski organized to add Fells Point to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969. Mikulski is now a U.S. senator.

This weekend's festivities, by comparison, took over much of the neighborhood and were expected to draw, according to organizers, 700,000 people over two days -- at least before rain drenched the area Saturday.

Vendors said they were thrilled to see the sun yesterday morning as they set up their booths for day two of the festival.

"It was rainy and cold -- we just toughed it out," said Michael Rynkowski, 41, who was selling cowboy hats made from 18-pack beer cases and trimmed in leather. The Westminster resident travels the Mid-Atlantic region, going from one fair, festival or NASCAR race to another, with the hats, which are made by a friend of his in Buffalo, N.Y.

"The culture, the climate, the pub scene around here -- it's a really unique festival," Rynkowski said. "People go from one bar to another and then come out to shop. And how many places have cobblestone streets?"

Most everything for which Fells Point is known -- from steamed mussels and antiques to vintage clothing and palm readings -- was on the sidewalk yesterday.

Alongside them, workers wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the names of their candidate of choice handed out campaign stickers. Activists interested in making Maryland's bars and restaurants smoke-free collected signatures on petitions. And workers with the Brain Injury Association of Maryland invited passers-by to stop by their table to "feel a brain" -- actually, it was just a gelatinous model.

Some in attendance yesterday pointed out that the mostly ethnic and working-class neighborhood for which the festival was designed 40 years ago to save was a far cry from the Fells Point that has become known among college students for bar hopping and that has attracted luxury apartments, art galleries, a yoga studio, specialty boutiques, expensive restaurants and a thriving Hispanic community.

"People down here have a little more money to spend nowadays. Fells Point is definitely starting to grow up a lot," said O'Callaghan.

Doug and Kitty Brice, retirees from Columbia, seemed to agree.

"Every time we come down, it always feels like we should come down more often," Doug Brice said. "It seems like there's a lot more happening that we don't know about."

jennifer.mcmenamin@baltsun.com

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