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South Baltimore glories in its sturdy little streets; Tour: Visit the area around Federal Hill and it's easy to understand what makes the neighborhood so appealing.


The news that the Ritz-Carlton people want to put up a fancy hotel at the base of Federal Hill would come as no surprise to my father. Joe Kelly's been an enthusiastic -- and honest -- singer of South Baltimore's praises for decades.

There are Baltimoreans who now reside elsewhere who would like to forget they ever had a Battery Avenue or Hanover Street address. To these unbelievers, the concept of a luxury hotel on Key Highway seems downright humorous -- wasn't this the location of ship-repair yards, paint factories and ice houses?

My father grew up on Poultney Street, a block away from the Cross Street Market, in the house where my brother Eddie now lives. When we return there, my father reminds anyone nearby that the locale reminds him of a London neighborhood.

This past Sunday, after a big crab cake and creamed spinach lunch served by my sister Josie at her Locust Point house (my family's South Baltimore affection is downright contagious -- sister Ellen is on Williams Street) we had one of my father's impromptu tours, this one for Pat Trimp, a Guilford Avenue resident who expressed an interest in the byways of Baltimore 21230.

My father has been conducting pilgrimages through the back streets, piers and rail sidings of his beloved South Baltimore for as long as I can remember. He sees beauty and fascination in places some people pay good money to leave behind.

Beauty in Baltimore rests in the eye of the beholder. For instance, my father led us to blotchy concrete grain elevator towers surrounded by tightly wedged, 15-foot-wide rowhouses, then encircled by rail car yards. Depending upon your perspective, this is gritty, rust-belt urban reality or a glossy travel poster for smart growth.

The weather cooperated. This past Sunday, cool and clear, cast the city in a favorable light. My father started out lavishing praise on how blue the harbor looked -- which it did, a deep indigo impressed by ripples supplied by a persistent breeze.

It doesn't take too many of Joe Kelly's tours to see the reason why the harbor is so visually pleasant. It's the shape. It's never so wide that you can't see the other side. And each of those vistas has a natural rise peppered with church steeples and curious-looking buildings. As we stood on my sister's Hull Street front pavement, we looked due north and spotted the Patterson Park Pagoda across the Patapsco. In the immediate foreground were CSX rail cars, a tank farm of liquid asphalt drums and the old Procter & Gamble plant.

As he took to the wheel and moved his car across the railroad tracks, I prayed that a long freight would not chug by, stranding us on its landlocked opposite side, with no other means than a water taxi to get out of the neighborhood.

Then we took off for Fort McHenry. The grass was wintry brown; the handful of trees looked as if spring were a long wait away. Not to worry. My father's commentary would have made the Society of the War of 1812 burst their buttons with pride. Here was the beauty spot of Baltimore -- and look at that ship on the horizon too. And there's the Key Bridge, Fort Carroll, Canton and the Lazaretto lighthouse.

We had the sights pretty much to ourselves -- the only other sightseers seemed to be the joggers who use Fort Avenue as a private running track.

We took one of my father's favorite routes -- William Street -- northward. Along the way he ticked off lofty real estate prices as we entered Federal Hill's real estate gold coast district. Then we perched at the hill itself, at the high spot where Warren Avenue ceases to be, the rowhouses disappear and the harbor and its shore fan out before your eyes. You can hate Baltimore and still admit this is a glorious sight.

As we passed the next corner I started to think about a visit to this same place this past October. That day I played tour leader and my guests were from Hampshire in England. They have a 15-acre garden and a fine home overlooking a bucolic countryside. Guess what? They loved Federal Hill too -- every little street, cobblestone and rail car. South Baltimore's contagion spreads.

Pub Date: 2/20/99

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