By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, Mar. 27, 2007
On the wide-screen television perched high above the bar at the Cat’s Eye Pub in Fells Point, Providence College is losing to West Virginia University in the first round of the Big East Conference men’s college basketball championships. But the sound is turned down and the patrons lined up on barstools aren’t paying attention. It’s 8:30 on a Wednesday night, early in March, and instead of watching the game, people are chatting as big-band jazz plays over the stereo in the background.
A white couple who look to be professionals in their mid-50s, dressed casually, talk and drink–a glass of white wine for her, a bottle of Coors Light for him. They banter about the media’s misplaced obsession with Britney Spears’ personal life when what people really need to know about is how many Iraqis are dead from a misguided war. The bartender passes by, a gray-bearded, pony-tailed fellow, his barrel chest filling out a T-shirt advertising a long-ago motorcycle rally somewhere in Pennsylvania. The man stops him to ask, “Who’s playing tonight?”
“Automatic Slim,” the bartender gruffly answers them, looking impish as he peers through his glasses. “Automatic Slim and his four-man trio.”
“I like them already,” says the woman, delighted by the answer.
“Automatic Slim and his four-man trio,” her friend echoes the bartender, chuckling. “The man’s got a sense of humor.”
As the bartender pops the top off a bottle of National Bohemian for another customer, the couple returns to their chat, moving on to Barack Obama’s chances of becoming president.
Welcome to Fells Point in 2007, where conversation and moderation are taking over from loud music and drunkenness, the bulk of the bar patrons seem to have graduated from college or grad school, and home prices are well on the way to $1 million and the typical monthly rent has long since breached $1,000.
It wasn’t always like this, of course. Forty years ago, Fells Point was a target for demolition, a waterfront slum of centuries-old buildings about to be sacrificed for a highway. Thirty years ago, with the neighborhood barely spared the wrecking ball, bohemians, bikers, and the John Waters crowd had settled in to wallow in the post-industrial grit of the seaport, cheek to jowl with sailors, immigrants’ sons, and the not-quite-working class that had long called it home. Twenty years ago, college kids and professionals had joined in the fun, their sharp elbows and fat wallets often giving old-timers a rash, while a rising tide of tourists gawked. A decade ago, the moneyed crowds had made even greater inroads, some of them moving into reasonably priced homes or fire-sale fixer-uppers, attracted to the same everyone’s-welcome feel of a waterfront place that kept bringing in the out-of-towners.
Today, Fells Point is largely given over to money and sophistication, and lots of it. Only hints of its grizzled old soul peek from beneath the prosperity. Taverns that used to draw a local crowd of limited means have changed hands for outrageously high sums, and they face catering to a more well-to-do crowd or making way for new owners who will. Civility is the rule, juvenile drunken hijinks the exception. As one local who grew up in Fells Point, Ted Lubonovich, put it recently, “Gone are the days when sailors would drink with a judge on Saturday, and then appear before him in court on Monday for whatever they’d done after the judge left.” For some of the old bars and taverns, the newcomers are inscrutable, but at least they bring in the cash.
Not everyone’s happy about this, and not everyone has adjusted to the new reality, including this writer, who, after a quarter century of Fells Point meanderings, including a stint as a bartender, freely admits to a fondness for the bohemian leanings of earlier times. Fells Point remains a welcoming place where the it-takes-all-kinds mentality that city living demands remains deeply rooted in the neighborhood values, but with money often comes an investors’ attitude. Having mortgaged to the max on a $750,000 rowhouse, or having signed a $2,500-a-month lease, many newcomers’ interests in their own properties take precedence over broader communitywide concerns, such as how to protect and promote the Point’s small businesses.
The wave of prosperity also has overtaken the longtime hosts of the Fells Point scene: its bars and taverns. If you’ve owned a bar for 30 years and you’re tired, it’s tempting to sell out for $1.5 million and let the next guy see what he can make of it–which damn well won’t be a dusty old corner bar for the shallow pockets of old. The changes are palpable, and, by the look of it, more are on the way.
Larry Silverstein spent much of January and February tending to a development project he’s undertaken in Costa Rica, but on a recent Saturday morning he’s back in his office where he got his start in the development business: Fells Point. The 41-year-old native of the Baltimore suburbs settled in the Point in 1996, flush from making buckets of money off technology stocks during his post-college years in New York. Even 10 years ago, as he acclimated to his new home, he noted the changes in the neighborhood from when he used to carouse in its bars in the mid-1980s. And he smelled a rich opportunity.
“Growing up, when we went out in high school, Fells Point was a much different place,” he says, recalling his reintroduction to the neighborhood. “It had gone from biker bars to a post-high school and college hangout–places like the Greene Turtle and that bar in Brown’s Wharf, [the now-defunct] Surfside Sally’s. So I started coming down, spending time here, and thought that an area like this–no flow-through traffic, with cobblestone streets, on the water, with all the old buildings–could only go up. I started looking for something to do down here, and I found this building.”
It was the old Union Box Co. building at the corner of Wolfe and Lancaster streets, and Silverstein picked it up for $350,000 in 1997, turned it into 50,000 square feet of office space, and soon was on his way to creating substantial personal wealth out of old Fells Point spaces. He also has completed redeveloping 900 S. Wolfe St., which houses his restaurant Red Star, and 906 S. Wolfe, which houses office space, and acquired the old Arundel Concrete plant across the street from it. His other Fells Point projects include two housing developments, one on Lancaster Street and the other on Aliceanna Street. And in 2005, he bought the Waterfront Hotel building for $1 million.
Ironically, Silverstein believes the “dead end” quality of Fells Point makes it especially suitable for prosperity.
“It’s an enclave,” Silverstein explains. “It’s a place that people have to go to, as opposed to pass through. It has a serious geographical barrier, with the water, and it actually is a little bit of a peninsula. From Aliceanna Street south, you’re not going to drive through there, it’s not a shortcut to anywhere, so you get these quiet residential streets that are narrow. You get density on the street, which is lacking in other places in the city. Fells Point has maintained its old historic fabric, so I think it’s a place people like to congregate. It’s Baltimore’s original mixed-use neighborhood. It’s stayed that way for 300 years now.”
Part of that mixed-use tradition is the bar scene, going back for as long as people have been thirsty. But Silverstein notes that the standby bars are changing hands with the advent of a more prosperous Fells Point.
“What you’re seeing is kind of a passing of the old guard,” he observes. “You have a lot of people in the same age bracket that have been in a tough business and done reasonably well for a while now down here, and they see the real estate values have gone up, and it’s a good time to cash out. And I imagine that for a lot of these people, that’s their retirement.”
Howard Gerber, for instance, had owned the Horse You Came in On on Thames Street since the early 1970s; he auctioned it off last November for $1.58 million. In 2005, the Glyphis family sold the River Drive Inn on Thames Street (better known as Miss Irene’s) after decades of ownership for $1.15 million. And Read and Louise Hopkins, who had owned the Whistling Oyster at the foot of Broadway since 1973, fetched $650,000 for their place in 2005, according to real estate records.
Silverstein starts rattling off other Fells Point bars that may be in the same boat–the Dead End, the Wharf Rat, Bertha’s, and others. According to Paul Haslup, a real estate agent who helps broker Fells Point bar deals, each of those three bars is currently listed: the Dead End for $1.8 million, the Wharf Rat for $1.1 million, and Bertha’s for $2.9 million. “Virtually every bar has changed hands or looks like it will change hands in Fells Point,” Silverstein says, though he adds, “I’ve never heard anything about the Cat’s Eye.
“Some of their businesses are based on a model that no longer is working in Fells Point,” Silverstein continues. “The dollar beers, the shots–that’s no longer the crowd down here. You get some of it, but the neighborhood is pushing toward more tavern, more restaurant, than bar.”
It’s not that Silverstein thinks the old-guard bars of Fells Point are vestigial artifacts that have no place in the new prosperity; they just have to figure out how to strengthen their standing in the face of all the new money. “They have an appeal, even to the people who are moving down here,” he says. “They just have to kind of get it together with a little bit with marketing, or maybe eventually people just will rediscover them.
“In my mind, that was the appeal of Fells Point,” Silverstein continues. “A place like the Wharf Rat, that’s off the main path–I think that’s a great bar nestled in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, with who lives here now, you will never be able to do a place like that again. What’s here is here, and once [the old bars] close, it will get in-filled with residential or something different. But there’s not much left down here–the Cat’s Eye being the exception–where you have that regular crowd.”
“It’s getting kind of dull around here,” Glenn Moomau observes between bites of food and sips of red wine at a table in the tented backyard garden of John Stevens Ltd. Moomau, an American University literature professor who for the last 16 years has played harmonica on Sundays at the Cat’s Eye with Steve Kraemer and the Bluesicians, is a little blasé about the current state of Fells Point, where he owns a building with four apartments and three stores. But he says he still loves it for the little bit of soul that remains. Moomau, 47, arrived here in 1990 from Washington, a little late for the true grit of the old days, but early enough to get a taste of it.
“At the Cat’s Eye, you’d get a guy who worked at the General Motors plant standing next to a heart surgeon from Hopkins,” Moomau recalls. “That was the beauty of Fells Point, all these people mixed in harmony at the bars.”
He talks of the neighborhood characters who are still around–Jaguar, who takes photographs for tourists and barhoppers; Digger Andy, who burrows for treasures beneath long-abandoned backyard outhouses; Bankrobber Jerry, an old vet who wears a helmet to protect what’s left of his injured head. He also lists those who are missing in action–the transvestite hookers, the guy who tap-danced at the bars, characters with nicknames like Muldoon, the old ethnic joints that closed down years ago.
When Moomau took up residence in Fells Point in 1990, “it was already being gentrified,” he explains, “and the old-timers were already complaining that it was kaput.” But the changes had only just begun. Some are reflected in the U.S. Census Bureau figures for Fells Point. In 1990, nearly a quarter of the Point’s residents were living in poverty, and nearly half the households were making $20,000 or less annually. In 2000, less than a 10th of the population was poverty-stricken, and less than a fifth brought in $20,000 or less. The median rent in 1990 was $455–meaning half of the residents were paying less than that. By 2000 the median-rent figure was somewhere in the neighborhood of $700. One can only imagine, given the prosperity that’s taken hold in the seven years since, what today’s figures are.
While the Point is more prosperous these days, Moomau says that the proliferation of money-based self-interest has hurt the neighborhood’s feel. “The problem with this neighborhood now, with the exception of a few people, is that most people in this neighborhood only vote their pocketbook,” he explains. “They’re only concerned about their block or their corner. And that angers me. And the people who own these antique houses around here, they’re very anti-business–especially small business–and I think that’s a problem. That’s what the neighborhood’s built on, the small businesses, so it’s not really a cohesive neighborhood.
“Back when none of this property was really worthy anything, people were much more relaxed. You had a different kind of person–it wasn’t a person who was buying something for an investment. Now, you have people who are like, `I don’t want somebody opening a coffee shop right next door to my house.’ But that’s the thing that made this neighborhood kind of cool, was that there was kind of frontier element–you know, you could do what you wanted with your property.”
What Moomau is driving at when he talks about restrictions on how people can use their property in Fells Point is an issue currently before the Baltimore City Council. On Feb. 28, the council’s Land Use and Transportation Committee held a hearing on City Council Bill 06-0464–Rezoning–Properties in Historic Southeast Baltimore. As City Councilman James Kraft (D-1st District) explained at the hearing, the bill is the culmination of a process that began in 2005 as an attempt to clear up confusion over property-use rules that had built up over several decades of piecemeal zoning measures. The point, Kraft said at the hearing, is to simplify matters “so that when a person purchases or sells their property, they would know what the zoning is, and they don’t have to deal with the multiple layers on top of it.”
As one might expect, Fells Point’s rezoning prospects are the source of deep controversy. The proposed zoning map has especially rankled people concerned about the fate of small-business uses of property. Larry Silverstein is not alone when he notes that the map reflects “the influence of the wealthier, more organized people who live here now, who want this to be more of a homeowners’ neighborhood, and less of a business neighborhood.”
The map proposes that Broadway and Thames have the highest-density, most-uses-allowed business zoning, and that fewer businesses will be allowed on the streets off those two main drags, including switching to residential zoning in several areas where businesses are now allowed. Current businesses are grandfathered in, but when they stop operating, if no commercial use replaces them within a year, the grandfather clause lapses, and only uses within the designated zoning would be allowed from that point on.
Silverstein says he’s finished all the development he planned to do in Fells Point, so the issue will not affect his bottom-line interests. But, he points out, “with the current rezoning, every single project I’ve done in Fells Point would not have been allowed. And I think that’s a mistake.”
Lily Adlin, who with her husband, Nelson Adlin, owns several properties with commercial tenants in Fells Point, is wary about the zoning changes proposed for Fleet Street, east of Broadway–changes that are also proposed for similar stretches of longstanding Fells Point commercial corridors.
“They are planning to dam up Fleet Street by creating two locks,” Adlin explains, using a canal metaphor. The two blocks of Fleet from Broadway to Ann Street, she explains, will keep its B-2 zoning, which allows a relatively wide variety of commercial uses, including such businesses as check-cashing agencies and restaurants and taverns without live entertainment. But then, from Ann Street to Washington Street–the next four blocks heading east on Fleet–“they’re going to put a lock on it by reducing it to B-1, which is terribly restrictive, and then east of Washington, it is going to be R-8, and you can’t have business at all in R-8.” The B-1 designation does not allow taverns, bars, or check-cashing operations, among other uses.
“We want all of Fleet Street to be B-2,” Adlin continues, “because it needs more business to bring in more people, which is what the merchants on Fleet Street desperately need.” She worries that if B-2 zoning (which allows 134 types of business uses) is switched to B-1 (which allows only 39 types of business uses), the businesses that remain will lose their critical mass and stop drawing customers from beyond the area. “They can’t depend on the neighbors to keep their businesses afloat,” she says.
Adlin reiterates Silverstein’s point about Fells Point residents having disproportionate sway over the task force that has guided the rezoning process. “The task force was made up primarily of residential groups,” she explains. “There were only two business groups on it, and about 16 residential groups. So the businesses were not well-represented, and the residents there don’t want businesses encroaching on their comfort.”
Indeed, at the two-hour Feb. 28 Land Use and Transportation Committee hearing, Adlin and a few others testified about their concerns over ratcheting down business zoning in Fells Point, while residents’ representatives gave blanket support for the proposed zoning. (Hispanic groups forcefully voiced concerns similar to Adlin’s about the area of South Broadway north of Fells Point, where less intensive business zoning also was being proposed.)
Silverstein surmises that merchants failed to participate as much as the residents because, even though everyone was invited to join in what he calls “an open process” that resulted in the proposed zoning map, “business owners are busy, and they don’t have time to go to these meetings. And they don’t really think anything’s going to affect them until it actually hits them in the face. But if you buy a house for a million dollars, you don’t want to live next door to a bar with live music. So you’re getting friction between the new homeowners and the existing businesses.”
The result over time, Adlin and Silverstein argue, will be fewer businesses in large areas of Fells Point. “Unfortunately, if this goes through, you’re not going to get any new businesses on some of these blocks that are one or two back from the main streets,” Silverstein says. “And that really has always been part of Fells Point–you walk through these alleys and back streets and stumble onto a store that you didn’t know was there. That’s going to get much harder.”
Kraft was out of town and unavailable for comment for this story before press time.
The points that Adlin and Silverstein make about the Fells Point rezoning are not challenged by Arthur Perschetz, president of the Fells Point Homeowners Association. Except, he points out, there’s a “tension that exists” within the homeowners’ group “between those who are looking for Ruxton on the Patapsco and others who like the mixed-use environment as it is. Some people really like the synergy, the vibe, the rough cutting edge of Fells Point the way it’s been, but some who have moved in over the last few years, when prices for property have gone up so significantly, didn’t necessarily want a store right next door to them.”
Perschetz acknowledges that, yes, the effect of the proposed zoning map is that portions of Fells Point where shops and bars have long been operating will have fewer businesses there as the years go by. But, he adds, the small-business operators still have a chance to have their voices heard.
“The business owners had an opportunity to go to the hearings [over the last two years], as did everyone,” Perschetz says. “But they’re not shut out yet.” The City Council rezoning bill still has to make its way through the legislative process, he says, so “they still have an opportunity to come and make their case.”
For 23 years, from 1976 to 1999, Fells Point was home to a charismatic character who marshaled the neighborhood forces when such controversies as the current rezoning battle occurred: Steve Bunker, owner of the China Sea Marine Trading Co., which traded in maritime curiosities. Bunker is still an absentee presence in Fells Point, often visiting, more often spending quality phone time with the locals from his home in Maine. But he’s no longer present for the fights, except as a long-distance adviser.
“I wish it were still a little rougher around the edges,” Bunker says of Fells Point, after having paid a recent visit. His eye-catching countenance–a thick mustache, long locks hanging from under a Greek fisherman’s cap, and a parrot on his shoulder–is easily imagined, though he’s speaking by phone.
“On the one hand, the cute-sification of the place–a lot of it is just a facade, because, on the other hand, two or three blocks back from the water, a lot of it is still there, with the immigrants and the Gypsies, if you can find them,” he expounds. “But the city is getting greedy, and they’re running off the stable part of the neighborhood. In the long run, the city is not going to prosper when the new people come in, buy expensive homes, live there for a couple of years, and then run off to the suburbs to live out the rest of their lives.”
In Bunker’s day, Fells Point was a long-term haven for people seeking new beginnings after a bitter turn. “It was the kind of neighborhood where you could come in from somewhere else and, with very little money, make a new start,” he explains. “I loved that.” At the same time, the neighborhood drew some powerful people, he recalls–sometimes under the cover of night, for covert vice sessions with the salty crowd that hung out after hours in the back room of the Cat’s Eye Pub. “The back room at the Cat’s Eye was kind of a local institution,” Bunker says. “Politicians of some note have showed up there at 3 or 4 in the morning. The local cops all knew about it, and people behaved themselves.”
These nocturnal connections proved valuable during the various fights over Fells Point’s future. “We had people slipping us information in the middle of the night, and professionals with skills and knowledge and connections helped us,” Bunker continues. Those connections helped during what he calls “the end of the road fight,” which stopped the proposed highway from coming through Fells Point in the late 1970s, and helped Bunker and other Fells Pointers resist unchecked development as the neighborhood’s star rose.
“What we wanted to do was maintain the neighborhood as conservatively as possible for as long as we could, maintain its livable scale,” he says. “So we fought the condoization of Fells Point, and a lot of the developers who came through were empty jackets who would’ve left us with a bunch of white-elephant rental towers–we beat ’em, every one of them.”
The experiences strengthened Fells Point’s resolve as a community, Bunker recalls. “And that continuity and institutional memory was terribly important, as was the spirit that everybody keeps in mind the interests of their neighbors, and the understanding that small business was the engine of it all,” he says. “We developed a lot of skill, and you could deal with us–once a bad plan was beaten back, we would sit down and talk it out. But there was that break in the late 1990s, the early 2000s, when everyone kind of was lulled as a real pressure was being exerted to bring in intensive development. We knew that Fells Point was going to change–that’s why I left when I did.”
Other old-timers disappeared over time, as well. “Most of them have pretty much died, and a lot of others have been forced out of the neighborhood by high rents or, if they were owners, by higher taxes–or they were forced out just by the feel of it,” Bunker says. “The newcomers kind of bleached out the neighborhood.” And even though “there is probably more [political] skill in the neighborhood now than when we were there,” he adds, residents and business owners are having trouble keeping up the resistance.
“A lot of them are like deer caught in a headlight in the face of all that’s coming so quickly,” he says. “Some of the professionals there now don’t have time to deal with the neighborhood, or they see it as an investment, not a home. We were able to keep development down to a dull roar, but today, I don’t know what you can do about it.”
“They’re doing somebody’s bidding and I don’t know whose, and I don’t understand it,” fumes Alicia Horn from across the bar at Birds of Feather, which she’s run on Aliceanna Street since the `80s. She’s talking about the city government and its current rezoning proposal, which, along with another proposal to designate Fells Point a historic district and a “renewal area,” would supercede the Fells Point Urban Renewal Plan–one of the longstanding land-use overlays that, city planners say, confuse the zoning. “Don’t fix something when it ain’t broke, and they’re getting rid of it,” Horn says. “You have a problem with that plan, then tweak it. Because we’ve had that plan since the ’70s, and it’s worked.”
The Fells Point Urban Renewal Plan has guided development in the area for more than 30 years, with numerous controversies over the years regarding modifications to it. Horn fears that the end of it would lead to ever greater heights and densities in the neighborhood.
“When density and height restrictions go away, the properties that are available down near the water are going to get big,” she says. “And then it’s all going to get to be like Inner Harbor East, where Spinnaker Bay and all that is.
“It’s good for business, for people like me–it really is,” she continues. “I get a lot of neighborhood people in here now, and that will only get better. And, as this happens, my property’s going to be worth more money for me to retire on. But I’m against the city trying to restrict certain people through zoning and historic guidelines, and helping others to build big buildings. It seems to me that they’re working with developers rather than working with the community.”
So what’s wrong with big buildings surrounding the small-scale historic structures of Fells Point? “Well, it’ll be sort of like Little Italy, where those big tall buildings shadow the areas right adjacent to it,” Horn says. “The wind will start funneling through, and it’ll be gross. And the traffic will get worse and worse and worse. And historic view corridors straight to the water will be blocked. The area won’t be livable like it is now.
“Things change, yes, and everything changes. Yes, it’s making it nicer for people to live here when you have condos and high-end apartments. But then you have to ask, how are all those people going to get into and out of this neighborhood every day, and where are people going to park?”
“So in other words, we should put a horse farm down there?” asks Brown Benson, Horn’s friend and patron and a master of sarcasm. He’s eating a Quiznos sandwich and sipping a glass of wine and, after more wine, he’s primed to play a strident devil’s advocate. “Then, what? The only places we can put the tall buildings is in Columbia, Hunt Valley? Where we going to put the tall buildings, in Mount Vernon? Charles Village?
“I live in Inner Harbor East, and you know what? I think they should have built it taller,” Benson continues. “I mean, I get the argument that the water view can get blocked, but look at it–we’re not looking at the Mediterranean here! Yes, there can be some city planning, but urban areas evolve. And they should be allowed to evolve. If people want high buildings, well, fine. I just don’t get it.”
For 10 years, Patrick Hill has owned the Unicorn Studio, a frame shop and art gallery on the 600 block of South Broadway that sits next to a proposed redevelopment centered on the north end of the Broadway Market. It’s called the Marketplace at Fells Point. As proposed by the developers–Dave Holmes and Dan Winner–the $50 million project would involve a nine-story complex consisting of a five-story parking garage and four stories of new residences. To say Hill is thrilled to the core about the proposal would be an understatement; he can barely contain himself when asked about the plan.
“What these guys wanted to do initially just seemed to be too good to be true,” Hill recalls of his first encounter with the idea about a year ago. “I mean, [Winner and Holmes are] just going to come in and sink all this money into trying to build things up without trying to seize properties and not get the city government involved really. I mean, come on, it’s too good to be true. But it looks like it’s a go. And the city is way behind the project, is what I understand.
“This is the point that I want to make,” Hill sums up. “This block here, the 600 block of South Broadway, has been falling apart for years, and everybody’s been turning a blind eye to it. Everything that gets done in Fells Point stayed down there on the square at the foot of Broadway, Thames Street, and on the 700 block, and this block was totally neglected. It was the red-headed stepchild of Fells Point. So what do you think’s going to happen? Well, it’s either going to be torn down or redeveloped. We’re down to five businesses on this block, and the Broadway Market has virtually nothing to offer. Now somebody wants to do something about it, and it’s going to be a gateway north to the rest of Fells Point. Finally, people might start wanting to come up here. This is long overdue. It should have happened years ago.”
Many Fells Pointers agree, though not everyone, and the sticking point is over the proposal’s height–the same issue over which Horn and Benson disagree for Fells Point as a whole.
“Dan Winner and Dave Holmes are good guys, and their hearts are in the right place,” Bunker says, diplomatically. “And I view the revitalization of the north end of Broadway Market as wonderful, but you’re a little naive if you fail to worry about what the height is going to mean in the long run. Height and density are the big bugaboos down there, and if a 10-story project goes in, then a 20-story one eventually will go in right behind it. And you can end up creating a canyon down there pretty easily. Again, the scale of living is what has kept Fells Point unique, and very livable, and that’s what’s wrong with this project–it’s out of scale.”
Holmes and Winner have overcome a lot of initial hesitation about their plan, including from Kraft, regarding its scale. “We respect that,” Holmes says of Bunker’s concern about the scale of the project. “But we won the hearts and minds of a lot of folks.” The need to include the parking garage was what added height to the proposal, he explains, and “without that parking this project could not be what it needs to be.
“This isn’t about trying to build some high-rise,” Holmes says. “As for what comes in the future, 50 years from now hopefully people will see the benefit the community gets from this project. It might raise the question of just how important is height to the future of Fells Point.”
Another one of the “big bugaboos” in Fells Point for years was a woman from Ruxton, in Baltimore County, named Lucretia Fisher. Now in her 90s and still living in her Ruxton home, Fisher came down to Fells Point as an investor in the 1960s and started to buy up bundles of overlooked old buildings. When she found out about the plans for building a highway through the area, she became one of the most important players in stopping it. Still, despite her role in saving the Point, she earned the ire of the bar owners and residents who came in after her, including Bunker–though he gives her credit where credit is due.
“Lu Fisher was a speculator in her own right,” he explains. “She grabbed her property, got it cheap, rented it out as slum property for years, and then sold it out. I had many friends who lived in her run-down places. And when [former Cat’s Eye owner] Kenny Orye died in 1987, everybody expected Lu Fisher to grab for it. The day after his funeral, she came into the Cat’s Eye with a couple of the biddies from Ruxton and started talking, `Let’s put a tea room here.’ It was a vulgar thing to do. But she was there at a time when she was needed, when a lot of folks were needed to do what had to be done, which was to buy a lot of property so they could stop the road.” (Anthony Cushing ultimately purchased the Cat’s Eye; if he’s plans to sell it, he’s keeping mighty quiet about it.)
These days, Fisher is almost entirely divested of Fells Point properties, but she’s happy to talk about what was once her “favorite place in the world.” While she’s a little vague on the dates and proper names of places and people, she’s still on the ball when it comes to her opinions about the Point. She acknowledges that she never liked the Cat’s Eye and its ilk. “They were mostly drunks, people who were more concerned about getting drinks in those building than they were about the buildings themselves–or Fells Point, for that matter,” she says. Instead, Fisher says she was busily “trying to get people to care about the area, which I thought had a big future.” Now that the future’s here, with all the money and new residents and offices and parking garages, and more on the way, she’s thoroughly disappointed.
“I think the whole area is going to be ruined,” Fisher asserts with helpless frustration. “I feel that I’m not going to see it when it happens, because I’m so old. But it’s already starting with all this wealth coming down there, and these big buildings covering up the waterfront. It’s going to be overdone, and by the time they’re finished, you won’t see any water. You will have lost the original attraction completely. And they say they will put protections in place [to prevent overbuilding], but I have no belief in protections when they can be changed so quickly.”
Fisher is especially disappointed by the current state of the the City Recreational Pier. The mammoth historic building, jutting out into the harbor just east of the Broadway Pier, has been largely derelict for many years now. In 2004, the city put out a call for redevelopment proposals, attracting a host of interested parties from around the country with substantial financial backing. In the end, it was awarded to J. Joseph Clarke, the husband of Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D-14th District), but after a series of setbacks he has yet to start the project. This frustrates Fisher no end.
“Why did they think that Joe Clarke was so good for it?” she wonders with a mystified laugh. “I was so surprised that it ended up with him, because it is a perfectly huge thing, and it’s got to be done right. But now, it’s nothing again.”
While the Rec Pier redevelopment has been delayed, Fisher’s engaging in a bit of hyperbole to state that “it’s nothing again.” Clarke, reached by phone on March 15, says several key hurdles are almost cleared, and he expects to begin work on the $50 million, 130-room hotel project this summer, “assuming all the pieces fit together.” He estimates that, once started, it will take two years to build, though adds that “it may be more.”
The Rec Pier aside, Fisher’s pessimistic view that Fells Point is falling victim to its own prosperity suggests that her strategy–to disinvest–may be wise. The old-guard bar and restaurant owners have started to follow suit, taking advantage of a flush market by cashing out. So has Silverstein. Because eventually, as Glenn Moomau likes to point out, the big wave will come, one that Fells Point investors may have a hard time riding.
“In 50 years it’s all going to be underwater, you know,” he says with a knowing grin. Sea-level rise, after all, is no joke, and the Chesapeake Bay is rising even faster due to land subsidence, making Fells Point flooding on the order of 2004’s Hurricane Isabel, when kayakers were able to paddle blocks back from Thames Street, an ever more likely occurrence. “I plan on selling here in a few years,” Moomau says, “before the deluge comes.”