I was not prepared for the sheer candlepower of Harbor East when I went in search of some early Christmas spirit this week.
Moving along Albemarle Street, where the holiday lights burned hot and bright, I made some mental comparisons with the old Howard Street and its department stores. Hands down, Harbor East outperformed the staid department stores. The place had a nighttime energy — and the circle at President Street reminded me of a kind of Times Square bustle. The traffic was maddening but there was no getting away from the reality that this part of downtown Baltimore is an authentic December destination.
I decided to move on and spend some time at Fells Point, where merchants, restaurants and tavern owners are throwing their own, less intense Christmas celebration this weekend.
After the dazzle of Harbor East, my eyes were ready for the low-wattage, Thomas Edison-style filament light bulbs that dimly illuminate places like the bar Rye on the South Broadway Square. (This is the site of the former Whistling Oyster.)
Fells Point's formal Christmas observance begins at 9 Saturday morning, when Santa Claus will arrive aboard a Moran Towing Co. tugboat at the foot of Broadway. Eggnog will be served all around, in restaurants and bars. The Square at Thames Street will become a holiday outdoor market.
"We are trying to keep this a neighborhood event, from the community for the community," said Willy Dely, who is helping to stage the weekend event for Fells Point Main Street.
Dely, a native of Lille, France, has a goal in the future of making the outdoor market into something resembling the Christmas markets found in European town squares. "We are not there yet," he concedes. He is aiming for a "more historic, less commercial" version of the holidays.
He's also figured out where Fells Point is these days, urban demographic-wise. Federal Hill, he says, draws the 20-something crowd. Canton gets the next age group, the workers in their 30s who have become first-time home buyers.
"The next age group is where Fells Point is," he said.
The lighting of the Broadway square's tree is at 5:30 p.m., and the parade of lighted boats commences at 6 p.m. and will be visible near the Recreation Pier.
This is a grand Baltimore tradition as people illuminate their craft and sail up the river. It's charming and much in the Baltimore/Chesapeake tradition. Perhaps a visit to the Thames Street Oyster House afterward?
It's curious. When you observe the holiday harbor lights from Fells Point, you are actually looking across the Patapsco to Locust Point. This year I noticed the bold and bright Under Armour sign on the waterfront. There's a red-and-green McHenry Row decoration across the water to compete with the tree atop Max's Taphouse in Fells Point. And nothing quite matches the reflected red-orange glow of the Domino sign on an atmospheric Baltimore evening.
I miss visiting the old department stores' decorated windows along Howard Street and the smaller shops along Charles, but the merchants at the shops in Fells Point have done a commendable job of providing a merry place to stroll.
I walked along Thames Street and thought of all the people who fought to save Fells Point in the 1960s. I looked around at the prosperous, evergreen-trimmed businesses and recalled when working railroad cars rolled down the street in its late industrial days. After a few beers on Bond Street, you thought you were hallucinating when a rail hopper car appeared out on nowhere and turned into Fleet Street.
People who know me realize I've never grown up and cannot resist a working toy train or Christmas garden. If you are in Fells Point, I also recommend a stop nearby at 520 S. Conkling St., where the Highlandtown garden opened today. It's in a busy working firehouse so the alarms come in as the little train (CSX, of course) rounds the curve.