A light snow falls on the railroad tracks in Fells Point as mostly thirtysomething couples pile into a chartered bus for a Saturday tour of Federal Hill and Locust Point. Not a history tour, per se, but a RE/MAX-sponsored homebuyer’s expedition of exposed-brick living rooms, granite-countertop kitchens, ceramic-tile baths, and panoramic views from two-tiered rooftop decks.
“Not sure you’re all going fit into that house,” jokes an older man, stepping onto his marble stoop as the couples traipse into the rehabbed row home next door. Upstairs, M&T Bank Stadium’s purple seats are visible from a brand-new deck. Below, across the alley, an elderly woman in sturdy shoes shakes out a carpet.
The bus feels out of place here, struggling to navigate the narrow streets in “the neighborhood once known as South Baltimore”—as a real-estate broker puts it. There’s also a lot of unappreciated local history passing outside the black-tinted windows—an original painted screen on East Gittings Street, the former Southway Bowling Center duckpin lanes on the corner of West Hamburg Street where Babe Ruth once rolled (now gone condo, of course), the Cross Street Market, the 1890’s brick public school repurposed as the contemporary-art gallery School 33 Art Center.Even Formstone—the ersatz siding John Water’s dubbed the “polyester of brick”—goes unrecognized as a peculiar Charm City legacy. “I guess some of the homes were done in large stone because it was cheaper than brick?” inquires a Capitol Hill lobbyist, looking to take advantage of Baltimore’s relatively inexpensive housing market.
“Actually, that’s a façade,” a real-estate agent explains.
In truth, the tour never quite reaches Locust Point, which as everyone who grew up on the peninsula will tell you, begins at Rallo’s Restaurant on Lawrence Street—even though Rallo’s is gone and it’s Big Matty’s Diner now. It’s unfortunate because if there is one place you’d like to take a busload of soon-to-be Baltimoreans to help them understand everything that underlies this town’s singular culture and eccentricity—it’s Locust Point. The first official port of entry for Maryland; Baltimore was born on these piers.
Indeed, you can make the case that nearly everything we think of as quintessentially Baltimore—Bawlmerese, blue crabs, Old Bay, Edgar Allan Poe, H. L. Mencken, Eubie Blake, Corned Beef Row, The Block, Preakness hats, Camden Yards, John Waters, Natty Boh—came out of a roiling mash-up of Old South heritage, blue-collar jobs, and the immigrants who streamed through what was once the busiest immigration center below the Mason-Dixon line.
“Absolutely, you can trace it all back to the blending of Southern culture and [African-American] migration, Northern industry, and the influx of European immigrants—first mixing at the port and its neighborhoods,” says Mary Rizzo, an American Studies Ph.D. and co-editor of The Public Historian journal. “Baltimore’s character, it’s uniqueness, the dialect, all of it, is a kind of amalgamation of these very different things coming together—with a little Appalachia thrown in,” adds Rizzo, who has studied the city’s love affair with the working-class “Hon” women of old Baltimore. “It’s all threaded through these neighborhoods.”
And here’s what makes Baltimore unique. There’s gentrification, sure. In Locust Point and other ethnic port neighborhoods, warehouses have been converted into trendy condominiums. But there’s also remnants of old Baltimore everywhere. Not just echoes or artifacts, but the real deal. Next to a $450,000 rehabbed row home or trendy restaurant, there might be a family-owned business that’s been around for a century. That older man stepping onto his marble stoop? He or his wife might have cleaned that very stoop 60 years ago with Bon Ami powder and a scrub brush, as was custom. Of course, lots of cities have old-school neighborhoods, but few have been able to integrate the old and new as seamlessly as Baltimore has around the port.
So, if we were starting a tour, we might do it at 1308 Beason Street, the three-story, brick Immigration House, which is where Locust Point-native Bill Hughes, the 76-year-old son of a longshoreman father and Irish immigrant mother, stands a few weeks later. Built in 1904, next to an even older German church, this is where arrivals to the city stayed awaiting a family from the old country to take them in. Three years after its construction, in the peak year of U.S. immigration, 60 steamers with 66,000 immigrants—Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Czechs, Slovaks (following earlier waves of Germans and Irish) docked at Locust Point. They poured into the shipbuilding, cargo, and railroad industries—B&O Railroad was the first common-carrier railroad company—and massive manufacturing plants, producing everything from sugar and spice to soap at Tide Point. (Yes, named after Procter & Gamble’s detergent factory.)
Hughes, however, is smiling and pointing up to the top of Silo Point, the 24-story luxury apartment tower that was once the world’s largest grain elevator. “We used to play dice up there when we were kids,” he laughs. “We’d wave and yell down to the cops, but they couldn’t come up and get us because it was owned by B&O.” He learned to swim off the pier next to Under Armour’s campus, which took over the Procter & Gamble facility, and recalls buddies swimming to the Broadway Pier in Fells Point on a bet.
Relatives still live in his childhood home on Hull Street, but old Baltimore, inevitably, is receding in Locust Point and the other harbor neighborhoods. “There’s the culture clash, but there’s jobs,” he says, mentioning Under Armour and the port’s rebound in the last decade, adding that the only real complaint he hears is about parking. Overall, he’s happy to see young families again using Latrobe Park, where he once saw Southern High School's Al Kaline, the future Detroit Tiger Hall of Famer, hit three home runs.
He’s got one more story that’s revealing: “Before my time, Cardinal Gibbons used to row a skiff back and forth between Our Lady of Good Counsel and St. Bridgid in Canton every Sunday, doing double duty.”
To his point, though separated by water, the Locust Point-Canton association runs deep. It was at the current home of the Baltimore Museum of Industry on Key Highway where Platt and Company Oyster Packers—patent holders of the tin can—launched the canning boom that filled Canton’s shoreline. In fact, Boston Street, according to 83-year-old Dr. John Charlton, who directs Baltimore Visitor Center tours, was named by Boston Irishmen recruited to the canneries. This was before the Locust Point arrival of Polish immigrants who he says, “didn’t want to live with the Germans” in South Baltimore and ferried to live and work in Canton. (His own German great-grandmother, Charlton volunteers, ran a Fells Point dry goods shop before marrying a Norwegian sea captain who’d wandered into her store.)
“Every city claims to be a city of neighborhoods,” says Rizzo, “but in Baltimore, it’s actually true.” And it’s because of the close-knit, ethnic neighborhoods, in which newcomers felt supported—from Locust Point and South Baltimore, to Canton, Highlandtown, Fells Point, Little Italy, Greektown, the Jewish community around Lloyd Street’s first Maryland synagogue, and enclaves beyond the harbor—that each group thrived. It also explains how Baltimore’s quirky culture developed—and stuck.
“Out of such insular places, come eccentric characters and odd cultural practices, however, it’s more than that,” Rizzo says. “You could pick and choose eccentric characters from any city. The thing that really makes Baltimore unique is its embrace of its weirdness—the darkness of Poe—by those who stayed behind in its neighborhoods. Because not everybody did. In Philadelphia, for instance, with the Founding Fathers, history is very serious business, but in Baltimore’s there’s always this edginess to it.”