Come dusk, as December's skies turn indigo and the electric lights flash on, strollers linger on the bricks and cobblestones along Fells Point's Thames Street.
They stand before the old-fashioned shop windows piled with toy boats and stuffed animals. They circulate along the narrow, red-ribboned streets. They glance over at the tugboats docked bobbing at the foot of Broadway.
Here, in a neighborhood of strong personalities and small merchants, urban confidence is running high this month, with the Broadway square decorated like never before and 200-year-old streets dressed up like a Christmas card.
"The streets have really come to life here," said Robert Helsley, a graphics designer, as he admired a 1950s-era bubble-light tree in a Fleet Street shop window. "It's really very Londonish with the old buildings and the port. There's something here that's missing in the malls."
What's changed to draw people to one of Baltimore's oldest parts?
Some credit the near-doubling of Christmas lights festooning the old square at the water's edge. (There are 30,000 lights this December; 15,500 last year). Others say it's the shop windows and seasonal decorations spread throughout this neighborhood's medley of bars, stores, antique shops and restaurants. Or could it be the subtraction of a marble slab in the center of the Fells Point Square that had been a magnet for trash and skateboarders?
"I can't tell you the difference it's made to the square since the city removed that thing," said Mike Beckner, owner of Brick Oven Pizza at 800 S. Broadway, referring to a marble pedestal base the city placed in the middle of the square in the 1970s. "We always called it the tomb of the unknown wino."
"There's no question that people are coming here to walk the streets. It's really encouraging," Beckner said.
A city crew removed the marble base last week.
"It's made a big difference. People aren't afraid to walk through the square," Beckner said.
The decorated shop windows encourage people to stroll and window shop. Their presence adds to a sense of public safety.
"We hit rock bottom a few years ago," when U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski was mugged outside her home in October 1995, said Jack Trautwein, owner of P.J.'s Place, a 15-foot-wide Lancaster Street shop that sells Nativity sets and other Christmas wares. "Strollers stayed away in droves."
"All of a sudden, it's happened. People are decorating their places and acting like it's Christmas," said Trautwein, whose store is crammed with German glass ornaments. "I have visitors from Germany who tell me that Fells Point and my shelves remind them of their childhoods."
"There is definitely a feeling that the streets are safer here this year," said John Raccuglia, an Eastern Avenue antique-shop owner. His plate glass windows filled with elves, pigs, reindeer BTC and 1950s aluminum trees were arranged by Maryland Institute graduate Julie Fahey. "There's more people on Charles Street, too."
The perceived upswing in pedestrian traffic in Southeast Baltimore this Christmas season has spread beyond the foot of Broad- way.
"I see a spillover of visitors from Canton," said Robert Eney, a window display artist who retired from the old Hutzler Brothers department store. "People are coming to Fells Point to see our windows. We're a destination. There's nothing like a good, well-designed window to draw people."
"This place was improved since the last time I was here," said Sharon Wigfield, a visitor from Hagerstown. "It's so cozy you feel like you're in a small town."
Pub Date: 12/16/98