Under The Influence


It's 9 p.m. on the hottest night of the year, and the streets of Fells Point are already jammed with Volvos and Jeeps lured to this waterfront enclave from as far away as Pennsylvania and New York. The suburban foreigners park just feet from restored 18th-century rowhouses, clamp their anti-theft clubs onto their steering wheels and head for one of the neighborhood's many bars. Little do they suspect that behind the red brick facades are residents hiding from them, barricaded behind double-paned windows to shut out the noise -- if not the public acts of indiscretion.

The residents know too well that before the night is over their beloved red bricks -- cleaned and repointed -- will be soaked with urine. They will consider it a good night if that's the only act of vandalism in a neighborhood whose history of political dissent, violence and public drunkenness stretches back 200 years.

These die-hard city dwellers have been fighting the proliferation of bars for 20 years. But the watering holes, with their satellite dishes and imported beers, just keep coming. Yet another, called Parrot Island, opened in August and other proposals to build "megabars" in the area are still on the table, despite a legislative effort to ban the large, open-air restaurant-bars on the waterfront last spring. In Fells Point, residents don't want tiki huts and palm trees blighting their historic community, where Frederick Douglass caulked new ships before escaping from slavery just blocks from today's most popular bars.

Residents say they can't handle any more: any more illegal parking, drunken driving, underage drinkers, vandalism and noise. They resent intruders for behaving as they never would near their own homes.

By nightfall on July 15, the invasion has begun. The 102-degree high of the day has ratcheted down only a few degrees. The air is still, and the heat bounces back off the streets of Belgian blocks and tightly clustered rowhouses, turning the neighborhood into a pizza oven with its own zip code.

Outside Jimmy's, where the locals eat Polish hot dogs for $2, a desperate-looking woman offers passers-by a pair of plastic lady's shoes for $5. Behind her, white limousines circle the square. Out of one jump six young women, all blond and wearing mini-dresses. They giggle and -- off to Thames Street.

Farther up Broadway, Ken Mayleaf, 37, and Mike Flynn, 35, from Anne Arundel County, take in the fashion parade of thin young women in short dresses and strapping young men in hiking boots and running shoes. Mike bluntly calls them "yuppie scum."

The two have come here for years, for what Mike calls the "density of bars." He compares Fells Point to a 36-hole golf course where you get a drink at each hole.

It is a drinker's paradise, like no other place in Baltimore. There is one liquor license for every square block from Central Avenue east to Chester Street and from Baltimore Street south to the harbor. That's 113 liquor licenses in 114 square blocks. Ten bars in a single block. More than 7,000 drinkers when the bars are at capacity.

Mike and Ken are here to do their part -- and have only 4 1/2 hours left before the bars close. They head up Broadway.

More than before

When homeowner Maryrose Whelley complains there are too many bars in her neighborhood, the bar owners say she should have known better than to move to Fells Point. But she always has a ready reply: "They say, 'You moved next to a pig farm and you complain about the smell.' I say, 'When I moved here there weren't as many pigs.' "

The 44-year-old computer programmer arrived 22 years ago, out of college and looking for an adventure. The house she rented on Shakespeare Street was among 117 buildings in the path of a highway that would have obliterated half of the area named for shipwright William Fell. Following a long tradition in Fells Point of protesting the political establishment, Maryrose Whelley and her neighbors fought City Hall, and won. It would turn out to be only the beginning.

She bought her house from the city for less than $6,000, peeled off the old paint, repointed the bricks and grew accustomed to having fresh fish, ethnic restaurants and moonlit views of the water all within walking distance of her home.

There were rowdy bars to contend with then, but something changed about 10 years ago. Ms. Whelley recalls the defining moment. "I'm trying to remember when I saw the girl in the Saab 9000 with vanity license plates from Delaware crouch in front of my house and pee."

Soon after that she noticed a frightening change in the attitudes of the patrons. "Early in the '80s, if people were being rowdy and you asked them to be quiet, they would, but now they want to beat you up."

She installed central air so she could keep her windows closed, and hunkered down for the long haul. She became an active member of the Fells Point Homeowners Association, the group responsible for closing the rowdy Surf Side Sally's five years ago. Today, the group is fighting against four other bars that want to stay open for longer hours, serve liquor in outdoor areas and operate a restaurant as a dance hall and bar.

Like many long-term residents, Ms. Whelley has discovered she must fight for the convenience of living in the city. But that's not her only reason for staying. She remains for what she sees only steps from her front door -- tugboats and sailboats gliding past the old Domino Sugar factory across the harbor.

"I've seen the Grand Canyon and the sites out West, but there's still nothing that pulls at my heart like the view at the foot of Broadway."

Generational complaints

Just before 10 p.m., 63-year-old Frank Borowski looks out over the water from a park bench near the edge of Broadway. He's out for a walk with his poodle, Lucky Boy.

After 30 years in an apartment sandwiched between two bars, Mr. Borowski is used to the noise and carousing and knows to find a parking space by 4 p.m. on Saturdays. He seems untroubled by the crowds who pass him by. But he warily eyes a group of local teen-agers on the square. He calls them punks. "I feel like coming out here with a baseball bat."

The local teen-agers find a perch on the stone bandstand on the square. They can't get into the bars, but occasionally go up the street to a coffeehouse. It's hard to imagine these kids are the "punks" Frank Borowski is so angry about.

Jamie Hrisanthacopoulos, 16, comes here from Highlandtown; Erika Borgos, 16, from Charles Village; and Judy Sellman, 18, is from Chase. In baggy T-shirts and jeans, they stand apart from the better-dressed yuppies, who Jamie says are "stuck up and have a lot of money and a narrow mind."

She and her friends complain the outsiders sometimes get rowdy and throw bottles at them. "We don't get carried away like they do. We get blamed, when they're supposed to be more mature than we are."

Behind the teen-agers sits a young man with a ring in his nose who is named Dip -- he claims to have no hometown and no last name. He beats out an African rhythm on his Senegalese drum. His sturdy music is the undercurrent of the night, an antidote to the deafening computer-generated rock music inside the bars.

By 10:45, action at the biggest bar on the 700 block of South Broadway -- known simply by its address, 723 -- is just warming up. To enter the dance hall, patrons pass through a steel-cage door in a steel-cage wall. It looks like a giant aviary.

About 100 people are inside, many standing on a balcony, drinks in hand, watching dancers bathed in purple and green light below. A little sign on the wall advertises a smorgasbord, all you can eat. But nobody's eating tonight.

The 'witching hour'

Officer Ronald Starr has worked the bar scene hundreds of times, patrolling from the waterfront north to Eastern Avenue, from Wolfe Street on the east to Bond on the west. To him, it's a lot safer than working the nearby Flag House Courts public housing project, where the playground was littered with crack vials, and where guns were almost as common as leaking pipes.

On his Fells Point beat, he has 49 liquor licenses to keep an eye on. He calls the time between 11:30 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. the "witching hour." To keep a lid on drunkenness, the police conduct blitzes every few months -- called "zero-tolerance" nights. On five nights in June, the city wrote 622 citations for illegal parking, drunken driving, public urination, serving alcohol to minors, and for overcrowded bars. But occasionally the offenses become violent.

On June 22 at 1:45 a.m., a fight between two large groups of men in the 700 block of Broadway ended with a 30-year-old New York firefighter lying unconscious in the street. He had a fractured skull after being punched, kicked and hit with bottles and spent three days in Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Twenty minutes later, a man running down Lancaster Street hit Jeffrey G. Merkey -- a 24-year-old accountant -- as he sat on his front step. The stranger cut Mr. Merkey so badly that he went to Church Home Hospital and received 20 stitches in his neck, arm and head.

"He came out of nowhere and started hitting me," says Mr. Merkey. His description of the assailant fits most of the neighborhood visitors on a typical night: "He was an ordinary Joe, a clean cut, average guy."

This month the liquor board began an investigation of two Fells Point bars that may have served alcohol illegally to a 20-year-old Baldwin man just hours before he drove his car across the center line on Route 152 in Harford County, killing two teen-age


A lively oasis

To Ron Furman, Fells Point is a tourist oasis in a dying city. He owns Max's on Broadway, a bar specializing in microbrewed and foreign beers. He bristles at accusations that the bars attract rowdy suburbanites, says he runs a tight ship and has a good relationship with the police.

While he admits he wouldn't want people urinating on his front door out in Pikesville, he has this to say to Fells Point residents:

"Take a little crap because if you didn't have all these people coming down here . . . then you wouldn't have Fells Point. You'd have decaying businesses like the rest of the city. The city's dying around us. Fells Point is the last mecca. We've got Fells Point, the Inner Harbor and Little Italy. What else do we have?

"People who move down here don't realize this is not Willamsburg."

His bar is in the 700 block of South Broadway -- a block with 11 liquor licenses and a total capacity of more than 1,500 patrons.

The largest of these is the Fells Point Cafe, the place better known as 723, a target of the homeowners' association. Owner Mark Bernstein operates part of the bar -- which can hold as many as 650 people -- as a dance hall. The city's liquor board recently agreed with the association that the place has a restaurant license and shouldn't operate as a dance hall. The battle has gone to the state's special appeals court and has cost both parties thousands in legal fees.

Mr. Bernstein says it's his right to have music and dancing and thinks the case is totally unnecessary in a place he sees as a commercial neighborhood. And he is dead serious when he calls his opponents "a militant group similar to a militia group, except they don't have guns."

Celie Ives hardly seems like a militia member. A 68-year-old grandmother, she's one of the residents who's been fighting the proliferation of bars since she moved here 12 years ago. She also owns Celie's Waterfront Bed and Breakfast on Thames Street, an upscale establishment with Jacuzzi jets in the bathtubs and hand-carved headboards on the beds. Her two $160-a-night rooms overlook Thames Street and the water. Best of all, to drown out the street and bar noise, the rooms come equipped with bedside ear plugs and clock-radios featuring the sound of ocean waves and rainfall.

Tequila with kick

At 11:15 p.m. the night is young at Bohager's on Eden Street, a large bar that holds more than 400 people, eight blocks from the heart of Fells Point. It was once the warehouse of a 19th-century waste-paper company. Now it's decorated with cow skulls and fake plants.

The off-duty police officers have already arrived -- hired by Bohager's to patrol Eden Street and keep the drunks from insulting the neighborhood's integrity.

A dozen young women having a bachelorette party trip out of the bar and head east on Fleet Street, past the H&S; Bakery trucks, hooting at passing cars. I identify myself, and tell them I'm writing about the controversy over drinking in Fells Point.

I don't take their names, since most are too drunk to decide if they want to be identified in the paper. A Sun photographer walks with us, but does not snap their photos.

The bride-to-be, the straps from her fashionable black overall shorts falling below her waist, is from Gaithersburg in Montgomery County. She is so drunk she can barely stand. A friend -- who is not quite as intoxicated -- props her up. They're all spending the night at an Embassy Suites hotel somewhere in the Baltimore suburbs -- they're not sure where.

Though several of them are drunk, they appear to be tame, responsible young women, having hired a bus to drop them off and pick them up later. The more sober members of the party tell how they've gotten the bride drunk with about 20 shots of liquor.

The most memorable -- called a "body shot" -- involved finding a man willing to take off his shirt, put salt on his chest and a lemon in his mouth. The bride licks the salt from his chest, drinks tequila and bites the lemon from his mouth.

At 11:30 p.m. the women turn down Broadway. Suddenly one of them, wearing a black mini-dress, grabs my notebook and runs back up the street. I chase her, through moving traffic.

The photographer catches up to her, only to see her frantically hand the notebook to one of her inebriated friends. The $l photographer wrenches the notebook from her hands.

Without warning, the black mini-dress kicks me in the stomach. I double over and drop to my knees.

From my crouched position on the pavement, I see another short hemline, this one a flowered mini-dress. She kneels at my side.

"I'm a nurse. Are you all right?" she asks, assuring me she is not part of the bachelorette pack. "Take a deep breath and tell me if it hurts."

I check my mangled notebook. The bachelorettes have managed to steal only a few pages. In the commotion, they have disappeared.

Later, I tell Mr. Starr, the police officer, of the attack.

2& "Welcome to Fells Point," he says.

Choosing identity

Just before midnight, Stevens Bunker joins us. A local businessman who owns a shop that sells marine artifacts, he is president of a second community group, called the Fells Point Community Association -- and outspoken critic of the proposed megabars.

As we walk down Shakespeare Street, a half block from Maryrose Whelley's house, a clean-cut young man in Bermuda shorts and T-shirt passes us on the sidewalk. Mr. Bunker, who seems to have a sixth sense for knowing who lives here and who doesn't, points to a trail of urine coming off a brick house.

"We've reached the saturation point," he says, no pun intended. "We're having to make a decision as to whether this is an entertainment community or a historic residential community.

"It's becoming the entertainment center for the wealthy and spoiled children of the suburbs."

Outside 723 stands a group of young men and women who look quite sober. Jean Evans, 25, a banker from Washington in a flowered mini-dress, is on her first visit to Fells Point and says she doesn't like it. Too many bars, too much drinking, she says. It reminds her of New Orleans. A friend, Keith Galloway, 22, a Naval Academy student, isn't particularly fond of the clientele. He sees "a lot of people with chips on their shoulders waiting for trouble."

Back on the square, Mike Beckner, owner of BOP Pizza on Broadway, takes a break before the bars close and the crowds head to his place for an early morning snack. He came from New York City a few years ago, bought a house in Roland Park and opened the pizza place. He loves it here. "It's a tremendous business," he says. His early morning patrons are often loud and drunk, he says, but they usually have one sober designated driver among them.

At 1 a.m., police Lt. Ernie Meadows gets ready for the bars to close in an hour by giving five officers instructions for the dispersal of the yuppies. Like the other cops on the Fells Point beat, he proclaims it "the safest area in the city," but notes the police carry cayenne pepper spray in case a fight breaks out.

In front of Max's, police block northbound traffic with a marked car so the departing patrons can't create a continuous drunken parade around the square that separates the north- and southbound lanes of Broadway. Around the corner, standing silent, is the city's hulking old recreation pier, masquerading as a police station for the TV series "Homicide."

Just before 2 a.m., Broadway is alive with thousands of people leaving the bars, milling around in the heat. Limousines circle the square. Another bachelorette party passes by. The bride must be the one with the veil on her head.

Two strapping, inebriated young men stumble onto Lancaster Street. One falls down laughing. The other takes a running start in the middle of the street and leapfrogs over his friend's head, his legs perfectly straddling it eight feet in the air. He lands a

little wobbly on his bare feet.

A few feet away, 64-year-old Arthur Stine, a retired elevator operator and bank guard, sits on his front steps, escaping the heat inside his home. He is is unimpressed by the drunken gymnastics. In the 30 years he's lived here, Mr. Stine has seen it all: brawls, drunkenness and car surfing -- the sport of jumping from one car roof to the next.

The vandalism has recently gotten particularly bad, he says, pointing across the street to the missing wood spindles of a stair railing. "Some of these young people may be from prominent families, but they'll fight you if they're drunk."

At 2 a.m. Lieutenant Meadows proclaims it a "peaceful night." As the Volvos and Jeeps head for roads that leave the city, the only noticeable damage is a broken ledge outside the Broadway market -- and my sore stomach.

Suddenly, a wind comes out of the northwest at nearly 40 miles an hour. Trash and cigarette butts swirl like sand from a beach storm, dumping dirt into hair, eyes and mouths. In minutes, the streets are empty, the crowds seemingly swept away by the wind. The view at the foot of Broadway is a haze of trash and dirt.

At dawn, the city's mechanical sweeper will wipe away the grime.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad