Walk This Way


A brilliant early autumn sun blooms over the Inner Harbor. A dustman sweeps up last night's debris. Harborplace unlocks its doors. The water taxi fills up. And Frank Shivers once again embarks on one of his walks. He'll walk Fells Point today. But his first step is onto the water taxi.

"Approach Fells Point from the water," he advises, somewhat paradoxically, in his book, "Walking in Baltimore: an intimate guide to the Old City," newly published by Johns Hopkins Press.

"It's the best way," he says, as the Inner Harbor water taxi pulls out from beside the Constellation's hull. "You get to see all the major landmarks of the port, like Domino Sugar."

"Six million pounds of refined sugar go out every day," he says, sounding pretty much like a tour guide.

In his book -- a definitive tourist guide to old Baltimore -- he's plotted 12 overlapping tours that cover neighborhoods from Canton to Bolton Hill. All his walks start at the Constellation Pier.

"It makes it easy for tourists," says Mr. Shivers, who lives in Bolton Hill. He drifted down to Baltimore from Philadelphia to go to Johns Hopkins University and stayed on.

"We've lived on Bolton Street for 40 years and the people on either side have held their homes even longer. We're still the new people."

He's loved every minute of it. He's a tall, angular, professorial man in khakis, Oxford shirt, tie and comfortable shoes. He headed the English department at Friends School for 25 years. He's written about his Bolton Hill neighborhood, Chesapeake Bay and Maryland writers before tackling how to walk old Baltimore.

"To me the great center of Baltimore is the harbor, and it's always changing," Mr. Shivers says, musing on the panorama of the old dockland as the taxi slips by. "We've seen enormous changes and yet Federal Hill is still there and still gives you the best view of Baltimore.

"Procter & Gamble is gone," he says, sadly, when the boat turns away from Locust Point into the Fells Point pier. "It'll be housing some day. Everybody likes water. I say [in the book] we're like lemmings: we go to the water and jump in."

Once a working area

Many of the old warehouses and factories that line the Fells Point waterfront have already been turned into apartments and condominiums and hotels.

"When I moved here I could have bought the whole thing for a million dollars," he laments. "There was really nothing, nothing here when we moved to Baltimore."

First thing he points out on landing is a faded election sign on the Shakespeare Street side of the Bay Front gift shop: "Vote Against Prohibition."

"That's a real Fells Point monument to the '20s," he says. "Very appropriate for this area. There have always been lots of bars here. This was always a sailor's hangout."

"Their legendary raffishness," he notes in his book, "gave the Point a notoriety like that of Marseille or Port Said."

But we'll not go on a pub crawl. Mr. Shivers' interests lie mostly with history, architecture, writers and artists, and urban folklore. But he is not insensitive to the importance of bars and barkeeps and barflies in Fells Point mythology. He retells the now legendary story of the public wake of Jeff Knapp, the Lincolnesque bartender at the Cat's Eye Pub, whose funeral cortege wound through Fells Point behind an authentic New Orleans marching band.

Levi Strauss story

"People love myths, don't they?" Mr. Shivers says. "I've been trying to track down the idea that Levi Strauss belongs to Fells Point."

A persistent tale holds that Mr. Strauss left Fells Point for San Francisco with a load of denim to stitch into jeans for miners caught up in the Gold Rush.

"This is the kind of story people like," he says. But he needs to pin down the facts.

In Fells Point, he says, "they don't need too many manufactured stories because there are so many that are true."

He spots a new sign on Thames Street at the Foot of Broadway: "G. 'Mike' Arminger Square." He was a policeman who died of a heart attack while coming on duty for his Fells Point beat.

"The neighborhood is really concerned about the family," he says. "They had a benefit, and they wanted to remember him, so they did this.

"See, the place hasn't been spoiled yet, that's the great thing. It's still not Williamsburg, and it's not New Orleans. It's got a number of elements that give it real character."

Among other things, Fells Point has one of the largest groups of 18th and early 19th century buildings in the country, many of them handsomely restored along streets named by the earliest settlers: Thames, Lancaster, Shakespeare.

Fells Point's borders

For Mr. Shivers, the 1986 boundaries of the Fells Point Historic District define the neighborhood. They enclose a sort of pronged rectangle on the Baltimore map, from the waterfront to Gough Street on the north, from Caroline Street east to Castle Street, with various protruding nubs and knobs.

He notes that there has been a market in Fells Point on the same site since long before the city was incorporated in 1730.

"I'm interested in the layers of history here," he says, "just layer on layer."

Fells Point, he says, is named for William Fell, a ship's carpenter who owned most of the land hereabouts early in the 18th century. Since his death Fell has been consistently promoted to higher and higher rank, often to captain, most recently by the hotel known as the Admiral Fell Inn.

"You know the great story in Baltimore is that pier," Mr. Shivers says, waving toward the recreation pier now taken over for the filming of the television series "Homicide."

"This is where the immigrants used to come in, until the middle of the 19th century," he says. "Mostly Germans and English and North European types. This is our Ellis Island."

Local historical names

His guide book includes succinct and quite artful capsule biographies of historical figures associated with each of his 12 walks.

"One of my great characters was Frederick Douglass," Mr. Shivers says. "He was a slave in Fells Point. I'm on the hunt for the exact house from which he escaped in 1838."

Douglass, he says, disguised himself as a sailor and caught the train north on the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad, which had just opened a line to the edge of Fells Point.

He leads the way to five houses Douglass built in the late 19th century "to make money."

"A great irony," Mr. Shivers says. "He owned property here where he once was property."

Two boys, Christian Kemp, 12, and his brother Dwain, 8, peep out of the window of the lovingly maintained house that bears the original stone marked "Douglass Terrace." They've lived with their parents, Shirley and John Kemp, in the old Douglass house three years.

"You know what's interesting about this house?" says Mrs. Kemp, who came here as a young woman from Tobago. "I'll tell you what's interesting. This house was built by Frederick Douglass, a man who was fighting for all black and white people to be on one level, to be free, and for black people and white people to be as one.

Frederick Douglass' dream

"And guess what? My husband is white, and I'm black and we're living in this house in 1995."

She laughs a full-throated Caribbean laugh.

"Isn't that great," she says. "He built this house and that was his dream."

After this serendipitous moment, Mr. Shivers walks on, past the H&S; Bakery through the wonderful aroma of fresh-baked bread toward streets that John Waters, Fells Point's signature film director, often found appropriate for his epics of trash.

"I'm really interested in trying to characterize Baltimore," Mr. Shivers says. "What kind of kind of place is Baltimore? That is the ultimate question. "The funny thing about Baltimore is that we all think the place we live is the center," he says. "When I'm on a tour of any district I really do feel it's wonderful. When I'm here I always think Fells Point is terrific."

And on this glorious autumnal day, he is absolutely right.

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