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Waterfront neighborhoods slowly eroded


It began on the night of Feb. 23, 1967, when 23 people packed the second floor of 1726 Thames St. in Fells Point.

That evening, the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill, Montgomery Street and Fells Point was formed. The event became part of the history of Federal Hill and Fells Point, two ancient Baltimore neighborhoods then threatened with massive destruction to make way for an interstate highway. The road was never built. Those 23 outraged and determined people made the difference.

The fight over the road ended in the 1970s. It was but one aspect of these neighborhoods' stories in the past 25 years. Back then, both communities were decidedly ungentrified. Most people called Fells Point "the foot of Broadway" or "the 800 block of S. Broadway." The cobbled streets dead-ended at the harbor.

The fight waged in behalf of Fells Point and Federal Hill focused attention on these aging neighborhoods. The dispute shook up both places. While Federal Hill was a residential neighborhood, Fells Point had every kind of zoning known to man. There was also a bar on every corner. By 1972, the taverns started changing hands.

That year, Bertha E. Bartholemew's (now just Bertha's), Turkey Joe's and The Horse You Came In On opened. They joined the Acropolis and Ledbetter's and the much beloved Helen Christopher's bar at Thames and Broadway.

Joe Trabert, for whom Turkey Joe's is named, recalls that you could buy a liquor license and bar business for well under $10,000. There were nights when it seemed as if 10,000 drinkers were on every corner.

Fells Point was not a place for people comfortable with Rodgers Forge, Severna Park and Towson.

Its streets were a vaudeville stage. The area bloomed with colorful characters -- bar owner Harry Reynolds, Mr. Shocket (his general merchandise store was the Hutzler's of Broadway), a vocal lady named Dirty Gertie, a big talker named Ellis of Broadway and the Cat's Eye Pub's Kenny Orye. Sisters Mary Leake and Eleanor Dashiell roamed the streets, singing the praises of local history.

And there was John Waters' film star, Edith Massey.

After her fame had spread, Massey ran a South Broadway shop called the Shopping Bag. One Saturday afternoon, a callow youth from Indiana wandered through the door in search of the lady who had become a cult-film goddess.

She cheerfully signed autographs and told stories. Then the young man asked her where he could buy one of those famous Baltimore crab cakes. With an equally innocent and straight face, she sent him to a 7-Eleven.

In the quarter-century since the road fight, many changes have marked the old neighborhood. The old days were over when Prevas Brothers removed their old Cloverland Dairy sign from the outside of the Broadway Market. They also took down their outdoor stools. Somehow, the Prevas's milk shakes (literally vibrated milk with flavoring added, but no ice cream) never tasted the same again.

The 1980s real estate boom brought redevelopment along the waterfront. As usual, Fells Pointers complained about overbuilding. And today, as large apartment buildings sit vacant, the locals cry out, "We told you so."

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