It was just a year ago, on a cold and moody November morning, that I met with Fells Point residents outside a sad construction pit at Broadway and Aliceanna Street. A developer had razed both sides of a once-familiar block of shops. Our group looked around and hoped for a promising future, but I remained more than a little skeptical.
I've always reverenced the fragile nature of Fells Point's ancient, little-changed streets. For decades, the neighborhood seemed preserved by its own poverty. But it has now grown wealthy, by comparison, and builders and real estate firms are ready to take on tough assignments that must adhere to the stringent historic preservation laws.
This is also a visible neighborhood, and a street that blossomed in the early 1970s after stalwart preservationists beat back a planned highway and staked their own claim.
Baltimoreans adopted Fells Point as a destination, a place to visit and take your visiting friends.
Every time I walk along Thames Street at Broadway and observe the wealth, the stylish shops, the flourishing restaurants and busy taverns, I think: Is this the same street I walked in 1968?
This week, I returned to the Broadway site, to what 12 months ago was little more than two large empty lots. A year ago, the builder had made a valiant effort to save old shop facades that were a little more than one brick deep. Over the summer, the diggers and construction cranes moved it. Fells Point went through its very own "Big Dig."
A whole new residential complex has been inserted into the historic fabric of the neighborhood. It seems large, but not overpowering, if not quite the same as the quaint, if seedy-looking, strip of shops along this not-so-fashionable stretch of South Broadway.
It's also a huge undertaking in a neighborhood of three-story homes and the occasional church steeple. Renovation or building rehabilitation has tended to be small scale — and generally one rowhouse at a time. This construction is a big fix, a decisive change.
On my walk this week, I also caught up with some other changes. Along South Wolfe Street, the new Union Wharf has opened. It's an attractive set of apartments that harmonize so well with the block you would be hard-pressed to remember it not being here. But I recall when its site was a noisy, dusty concrete plant, much more in keeping with the blue-collar Baltimore of the 1960s.
I would have predicted the concrete plant would have been replaced by apartments decades ago, given the location's impressive view of the harbor. But development never arrives as quickly as you might think in Baltimore.
The wait was worth it. Architects and developers have grown more attuned to the city and its historic scale. We'll get a better building today than what would have gone up here in 1980. I was also impressed by the reconstructed former St. Stanislaus Church property on South Ann Street. This could have been a mess — and it did not turn out that way.
I spoke with City Council member James Kraft about what's going on at Broadway and Aliceanna. He told me he is seeing the neighborhood begin to unite around the project, which sits between the two halves of Broadway.
He sees signs of the business community becoming energized by the prospect of the promised new shops along Broadway that will arrive next year when the "Big Dig" is completed.
I often walked along Fells Point streets and noticed that a single old home had been repaired and cleaned up. Now I pass through the neighborhood and observe that a hundred new living units are arriving simultaneously.