There was no keeping the runners and strollers away from Fells Point this week.
It’s taken years for this ancient Baltimore neighborhood to enjoy a springtime with so many parts of its urban puzzle locked together. The renovations of the Broadway Market buildings were completed late last summer. The Sagamore Pendry Hotel, known to Baltimore natives as the Recreation Pier, was finished up three years ago. There’s a food truck parked at the south end of the Choptank Restaurant.
What seemed like decades of street rebuilding, in a historic character with granite paving blocks, also wrapped up. The old neighborhood never looked so put together — unfortunately, just in time for the coronavirus pandemic, social distancing and the related interruption of business as usual at Fells Point’s bars and restaurants.
On a fine spring afternoon, you don’t need open retail places to make you appreciate what time and a mellow old city deliver here. And there was more than a promise of hope (credit rising temperatures and a whiff of humidity?) in the air and a wishful suggestion that two months of diligent sequestering may coax in a different summer season.
But this doesn’t mean the bed of intense blue-purple catmint plants isn’t blooming at the square, the open space that stretches from Lancaster Street to Thames Street along South Broadway, neatly paved with bricks. The trimming is a gray stone, now nicely weathered and lined with trees.
The square looked like a city planner’s textbook dream the other day. Folks were out sunning on benches, and children used the bricks as their own tricycle track. While it seemed that some business owners were anticipating reopening, only a few perishables delivery trucks gave any indication that the doors may open wide one day.
More to the point were the grocery shoppers walking with arms full of bread and rolls from the H&S Bakery plant. The scent of bread baking awakened the neighborhood this morning better than any alarm clock.
While there is no Preakness Stakes this May, there are steadfast Baltimore institutions around to impart a sense that all is not lost. The flag still flies at Fort McHenry, and cargo ships still call at the Domino Sugar refinery.
The walkers and runners lost no time discovering and exploring the curious set of buildings, and a trim park, known as Harbor Point. They found Point Street, and its Exelon Tower. Who could have imagined, during the long years of the neighborhood battle against an interstate highway and the urban renewal debates that followed, that a skyscraper district would arrive along Lancaster Street?
It takes some getting used to to look over the three-story rooftops of South Bond Street and find a 20-some-story glass-plated office or apartment house.
The ancient streets of Fells Point and the newness of Harbor East present a potent contrast, but let’s think about it. Isn’t there some overlap? The Fells Point music scene seems to have suggested the new(ish) Harbor East, Keystone Korner Baltimore on Lancaster Street. And while the Charleston Restaurant is also on Lancaster, its owners, chef Cindy Wolf and Tony Foreman, initially had a restaurant called Savannah in the basement of the Admiral Fell Inn on Broadway Square in 1995.
It may be a different and nontraditional summer of 2020, but the coming Memorial Day weekend is still a starting point for the season. And the bobbing sports boats along the Patapsco send a strong message to get out and enjoy it, if at a distance.
But be warned and be patient. A part of old Baltimore leading to Fells Point and Harbor East remains in transition. The reconstruction of Central Avenue is a construction combat zone, as it has been for the past several years. In the meantime, walk around the barrier and enjoy the neighborhood.