Standing at the foot of Broadway, you sense immediately that you are in a historical area. The port alive with activity, the old houses, storefronts, and warehouses, the mix of people and land uses, the sheer density all suggest an earlier time, before automobiles and suburbs. Walk along Thames Street, turn into one of the narrow side streets, and imagine it lined with the homes and shops of tailors and blacksmiths and shoemakers, with small grocery and drygoods stores, with boardinghouses and taverns and coffeehouses.
Imagine the air filled with the sounds of a half-dozen different languages. Picture the streets filled with sailors and laborers looking for work along the waterfront, with housewives shopping for the day's food, with children seeking relief from crowded homes, with craftsmen and merchants going about their business. This was Fells Point until well into the twentieth century.
EARLY SETTLERS: LABORERS AND MARINERS
By 1880, the waterfront along Fells Point was restless with the business of shipbuilders and merchants. Here lived the men who actually built the ships, sailed them, and loaded and unloaded their cargo, along with the craftsmen and shopkeepers who supplied them and their families with their daily needs. The shipyard owners and merchants, however, chose to live in the more fashionable district just north of the basin, now known as the Inner Harbor.
Matthew Taylor, a grocer who lived on Thames Street in 1804, might well have been aware that Fells Point was downtown's poor relation. He might have observed that only about two-fifths of his neighbors owned their homes; that fully one-third of them owned nothing of value -- neither house, property, nor personal effects; and that only one-fifth were prosperous enough to own rental property.
And if Taylor needed further evidence of Fells Point's disadvantaged position in relation to the rest of the city, the 1800 yellow fever epidemic surely provided it. More than 400 of his neighbors died of the disease that summer, victims of overcrowding, poor sanitation, and weakened resistance. Unlike
more prosperous Baltimoreans, they were unable to flee the city for a healthier environment, nor were they able to afford what medical care was available.
Politics in Fells Point -- oppositional, fractious, at times militant -- reflected the interests and style of its residents. Throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Matthew Taylor and his neighbors elected fellow workingmen to represent them on both the City Council and in the state legislature. In doing so, they opposed the directives of party regulars, who generally cast their vote for the city's elite.
FREE BLACKS AND SLAVES
In the years before the Civil War, free blacks and slaves played a significant role in the life of Fells Point. The majority were employed in the shipyards and along the docks where they joined whites as caulkers, stevedores, draymen, and laborers.
Slave labor was especially profitable to owners of larger establishments, such as David Stodder, who, with 17 slaves, was one of the largest slaveowners in Baltimore. Slaves not only worked without pay for their masters; owners like Stodder could also count on their wages when they were hired out to others.
The most famous slave to live in Fells Point -- perhaps the community's most famous resident ever -- was Frederick Douglass. Originally from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Douglass lived in the 1820s as a servant with Hugh and Sophia Auld, relatives of his master, in a house located on the south side of the 1400 block of Philpot Street, currently vacant land owned by the Allied Chemical Company. After escaping from Fells Point into freedom in 1838, Douglass went on to become a famous abolitionist, author, orator, and ambassador to Haiti.
As a young man in the 1830s Douglass worked as a caulker, a trade virtually monopolized in Baltimore by African Americans at that time. He worked at William and George Gardner's shipyard on the north-east corner of Lancaster and Wolfe Streets, now the location of the Belford Instrument Company, where he experienced the mounting racial tensions of the pre-Civil War years. He was repeatedly harassed and beaten by white workers in the shipyard, who feared black workers' competition for jobs and resented having to work with them. After a particularly brutal beating, Auld wanted to have Douglass's assailants arrested. But nothing was done because no white witnesses would admit having seen the assault, and the testimony of African Americans was not admissible in the courts.
Racial tensions again surfaced in the shipyards in the 1850s and 1860s. As early as 1838, black caulkers had organized the Caulker's Association, which contracted wages and working conditions with the powerful shipwrights association. Though many shipbuilders were satisfied with this arrangement, others disliked the power of both the caulkers and their fellow shipwrights.
Beginning in the late 1850s, a time of general economic instability, some shipwrights hired less skilled white men to caulk their ships at wages lower than those paid to blacks. Many of these white caulkers were immigrants, eager for work and not so reluctant as native Baltimoreans to do work that had been customarily stigmatized as "Negroes' work."
African-American workers who refused to give up their jobs were assaulted by their white replacements. Other white shipyard workers then refused to work with black caulkers and joined the attacks against them. Initially supported by their employers, the newspapers, and the police, black caulkers were finally pushed out of their jobs as employers gradually gave in to demands of white caulkers.
In response, a group of African-American social, religious, and political leaders in Baltimore -- the caulker Isaac Myers prominent among them -- raised $10,000 in the black community to establish their own Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company west of Wills Street, on a site now occupied by Allied Chemical Company. Founded in 1866 and operating for almost 20 years, the company was nearly unprecedented as a black-run business in post-Civil War America. It also precipitated Myers into local and national prominence as a black labor leader.
By the mid nineteenth century, the canning industry joined shipbuilding and trade in shaping the day-to-day life of many Fells Point residents. Beginning in the 1830s, dozens of canneries started to ring the Baltimore waterfront. By the later decades of the century, canning was the second-largest industry in the city, making Baltimore the canning center of the United States.
At first, oysters were the principal food packed, with fruits and vegetables filling in the summer months when oysters were not available. By the 1880s, tomatoes, corn, beans, and peaches had become the major foods canned.
Before the twentieth century, a key group of workers in the industry were the hand can makers, skilled tinsmiths who made about 60 cans an hour by hand. The can makers were a powerful group: Their skill, the strong bonds they had developed over years of living and working together in Fells Point, along with the canners' urgent need for cans when raw food was ready to be processed, gave them strength and solidarity.
During the late nineteenth century, the can makers struck each year during canning season, demanding and generally getting a wage increase. In 1879, can makers organized the Can Makers (( Mutual Protection Association (CMMPA), Local Assembly 1384, of the Knights of Labor.
Partly to break the power of the can makers, canners began in the early 1880s to introduce machines that automated parts of the can-making process. One machine was even advertised with the slogan "It Never Strikes." The CMMPA resisted these machines by striking, organizing a national boycott of machine-made cans, and threatening to destroy the actual machines.
Despite these protests, the can makers were fighting a losing battle, victims of the canners' desire for control as well as the increasing cost-effectiveness and efficiency of the new technology. By 1900, machines had all but displaced the can makers, and can making became a semiskilled industry, detached from the sense of power and autonomy skill had imparted. The American Can Company, at the intersection of Hudson and Boston Streets, was the largest of the new can-making factories, employing hundreds of workers, including women and young people.
In the early years of the canning industry, oyster shucking employed about 10 percent of the black men in the city, who frequently worked as brick makers or hod carriers when oysters weren't in season. When fruits and vegetables came to dominate the industry, however, canners hired women and children to do the work of food processing, including peeling tomatoes,
snipping beans, cutting spinach, and capping strawberries.
Canners believed women were better adapted to work with fruits and vegetables. As one canner put it: "Women and larger-sized children were preferable. . . . [Cannery work] is unsuitable for men as the spectacle of able-bodied and strong men sitting down all day hulling peas, peeling tomatoes, peaches, etc., is not a very elevating one; nine times out of ten, men who are willing to do such work are lazy and shiftless." Perhaps a more important reason was that women and children could be hired at lower wages than men. Only in the 1950s were the tasks of food preparation generally automated; in earlier years, the canners required thousands of hand workers.
Most of the women working in the canneries were immigrants who lived in the immediate area. Working 12 hours a day, five or six days a week, and with the help of her children, a cannery woman might earn $4 or $5 a week in the early 1900s -- about half the earnings of other working women. And cannery work was highly seasonal. Many canneries ran about six months of the year, beginning with spinach in April; continuing with strawberries, peas, and beans in May and June; and concluding with peaches and tomatoes in September. A cannery woman averaged an annual wage of about $125.
Typically a woman cannery worker's day began at 5:00 or 6:00 a.m. when the cannery whistles blew, signaling the arrival of crops. The women would work two hours or so, then return home to make their families' breakfasts and get children off to school. They would then go back to the canneries and work until all the food was packed. Sometimes this meant a short day of 6 to 8 hours, sometimes a long one of 12 to 15.
Cannery work was uncomfortable and exhausting. Canneries were cold and wet. Cooking steam filled the air; refuse covered the floor. Workers sustained frequent hand injuries and suffered skin rashes from handling the acidic fruit and vegetables. Yet cannery women accepted these conditions in order to earn a few dollars to help support their families.
As immigrants, most also knew little English and were unfamiliar with the pace, rules, and techniques of other kinds of factory labor. And so the drudgery of cannery work was undoubtedly relieved by the informality of the workplace, the social interaction it allowed among family members and neighbors, and the security of working in a familiar environment.
THE IMMIGRANT COMMUNITY
From the mid nineteenth century to the recent past, the majority of Fells Point residents have been immigrants, their children, and their grandchildren. At first, Germans dominated the area. Later, they were joined by Czechs, Ukrainians, Poles, and other ethnic groups. In the face of extremely difficult circumstances, through hard work and personal discipline, these men and women made Fells Point a satisfying place to live. Here they purchased houses, raised families, worshipped God, and created a network of neighborhood associations.
The Polish community is a good example of the immigrant experience in Fells Point. Poles began to settle in the area in the 1880s, outnumbering all other ethnic groups 40 years later. They came to this country with little money and few industrial skills. The men frequently found work along the docks as stevedores or oyster shuckers, while the women typically worked seasonally in the canneries.
Poorly paid for their labors, with few other choices, and anxious to save for a better future, these Polish immigrants frequently crowded into unsafe, unhealthy houses. According to a 1907 housing investigation of a predominantly Polish block bounded by Broadway, Thames, Caroline, and Lancaster Streets, three or four households lived in houses intended for one family. Apartments were badly in need of major repairs, poorly lit, and inadequately ventilated and had no indoor water or toilets. "An eight-room house contained seven families comprising thirty-six persons," the study reported.
Yet this same report goes on to describe how, even in these tenements, Polish families created physical and psychological order for themselves.
A remembered Saturday evening inspection of five apartments in a house in Thames Street, with their whitened floors and shining cook stoves, with the dishes gleaming on the neatly ordered shelves, the piles of clean clothing laid out for Sunday, and the general atmosphere of preparation for the Sabbath, suggested standards that would not have disgraced a Puritan housekeeper. The home-staying Polish woman usually takes pride in keeping her domain clean. If, as is often the case, the home consists of a crowded one- or two-room apartment, occupied by six or eight people, and located two floors above the common water supply, household cleanliness must mean an expenditure of labor and time that may well be termed heroic.
The effort to create an orderly, purposeful life extended outside the home into the larger community. In 1879, Father Piotr Koncz and a group of parishioners founded St. Stanislaus Kostka congregation. The church they built, still located in the 700 block of South Ann Street, was dedicated two years later. It soon was joined by a parish grammar school, convent, orphanage, and cemetery. St. Stan's, as it is now affectionately called, has been a social as well as spiritual center of the Polish community for more than a century.
Similarly, a sense of belonging grounded in a round of familiar, shared, day-to-day activities and social relations was fostered by the Polish-language newspaper, several political and business associations, dozens of social clubs organized around the Polish National Alliance and the Polish Home, and small ethnic entrepreneurs -- shopkeepers, grocers, barkeepers, photographers.
For several generations, then, Poles, as well as their German, Czech, Ukrainian, and other ethnic neighbors, have made Fells Point a thriving neighborhood of hard-working people. But the community is now being destroyed by rehabilitation and development. Perhaps residents' strong roots in the neighborhood explain their particularly acrimonious resistance to this change.
WHOSE NEIGHBORHOOD IS IT?
Since the 1960s, Fells Point has been contested terrain as opposing groups have sought to direct changes in the community to conform to their own competing interests. The contenders include older and longtime residents trying to protect their homes and their community of familiar people and places; newer residents attracted by urban living and the cosmopolitan quality of the neighborhood; historic preservationists charmed by the waterfront location and age of the area and wanting to rehabilitate old buildings to their original styles; the city encouraging upscale development in the hopes of attracting prosperous residents and successful businesses that will enlarge the city's tax base; entrepreneurs seeking to capitalize on the area's emergent trendiness; and developers who see opportunities for power and profit.
The sources of these conflicts lie as far back as the early 1960s when Fells Point was experiencing several changes. Residents were getting older, and their children were moving to Baltimore's burgeoning suburbs. The economic base of the community also was eroding. Much of the port-related industry and trade was abandoning the area for the outer harbor, which could accommodate modern modes of shipping more efficiently. Local industries were cutting down their workforces and, in some cases, closing up shop. Housing, too, was deteriorating. At the same time, artists and intellectuals, as well as historic preservationists, were increasingly attracted to Fells Point, as much by cheap rents and the lively character of the neighborhood as by historic houses.
Baltimore City was also experiencing enormous economic and social changes during the early 1960s. Judging Fells Point a decaying and expendable inner-city area, Baltimore officials announced plans in 1966 to route Interstate Highway 83 (I-83) through this community and adjoining Canton. This meant condemning several hundred homes and forcing dozens of mostly elderly Fells Point residents to relocate. The plan led to the first battle in the struggle for control of the neighborhood.
Fells Point residents, old and new, along with their Canton neighbors, organized to fight I-83 in a way unprecedented in recent Baltimore history. After a decade of stalling tactics, lawsuits, countless meetings, hearings, protests, and sheer persistence, they were successful in their fight. In 1977, the city finally lifted the ordinance condemning 78 Fells Point properties in the road's path, thereby signaling the end of plans to cut the road through the neighborhood.
Yet the victory over the road did not preserve Fells Point as a working-class neighborhood. The tactic that finally stopped the expressway was the designation of the area bounded by the harbor, Aliceanna, Wolfe, and Dallas Streets -- an area in the immediate path of the proposed expressway -- as a historic district. But this designation did not necessarily benefit the area's longtime residents.
It is illegal to raze buildings in a historic district, yet historic designation also makes property more desirable and increases its value. For example, in 1970 the median value of owner-occupied houses in Fells Point was $5,000. By 1980, it had risen 336 percent, to $16,800. In the historic district, property values of owner-occupied houses rose a spectacular 526 percent, from $7,000 in 1970 to $36,800 in 1980. (During the same decade, property values in the rest of the city rose 289 percent.)
As a result, the historic designation created enormous pressures for the neighborhood's working-class residents. It raised property taxes by as much at 500 percent, forced renters with low or fixed incomes to move as landlords raised rents or sold what had become "hot properties," and created expensive requirements for rehabilitation.
FELLS POINT TODAY
Historically preserved houses, high-priced condominiums and inns, marinas, expensive restaurants, and chic shops have been turning this traditional working-class community into an upper-middle-class residential and recreational area. In the process, a historic community and a satisfying way of life for generations of residents have been seriously compromised.
Many residents with an appreciation for a diverse, lively community have moved from Fells Point, finding its increasingly upscale style uncongenial, its rents or taxes too high, the struggles of the past two decades too demoralizing. Others have chosen to remain. They continue their efforts at asserting some local control, working to keep development on a manageable scale and maintain opportunities for housing and services for the less prosperous.