That night, the pounding woke me up. As a resident of Federal Hill, it wasn’t unusual: at daybreak on Sundays, we usually hear the chatter of homeless men making their way to the Inner Harbor. In the evenings, we often hear fireworks from the stadium area, or helicopters on the way to Shock Trauma. There are sirens and train whistles and kids playing.
We’re used to it. We love the city, and we love Federal Hill. But this night, I stumbled from bed and pulled the curtains aside. There, beneath the window, was a young woman cursing and kicking the side of my husband’s cheery, bright blue Volkswagen as hard as she could.
When I asked her to stop, she reported a story now familiar to many of us here: She’d been drinking all night at the Federal Hill bars and then had a huge fight with her boyfriend.
“I’m sorry,” she said to me, crying. “I’m just so drunk.”
In the last several years, as many bars in Federal Hill have expanded, these scenes have become routine. Families wake up to find cigarette butts, half-eaten pieces of pizza and other trash on their stoops. Young people leaving the bars urinate and vomit on the sidewalks and streets.
They smash flower pots and steal planters. Fights are frequent. One couple has watched from their South Charles Street home as drunken young men leap from parked car to parked car, as if in a race.
And now exasperated residents are trying to fend off a proposal for yet another large bar: a four-storefront-wide German-style beer garden on East Cross Street.
The Federal Hill Neighborhood Association is leading the opposition, with the support of four other neighborhoods, Federal Hill South, Otterbein, Sharp-Leadenhall, and South Baltimore.
The group’s protest will be heard before the Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners this Thursday afternoon. More than 450 residents have signed a petition and three dozen have written letters against the proposal. (More details on hearing here.)
Many feel we’ve hit the tipping point on a problem that has been building for a long time.
Getting Around the Restrictions
As far back as 2000, realizing that the number of bars was threatening the quality of life for residents, state legislators had the wisdom to draw a box around the concentration of Federal Hill bars.
They essentially stopped the creation of additional bars by prohibiting new liquor licenses, as well as forbidding licenses to be transferred into the area.
But the bars were able to work around these restrictions.
Some bought properties next door and expanded into those places. One owner changed his parking lot into an extension of his bar.
So over the last decade, even though the number of liquor licenses in the immediate vicinity of the Cross Street market has stayed the same (34), the capacity of these bars has grown from a maximum of 3,751 potential drinkers in 2003, to 5,025 in 2013 – a 34% increase.
In the old days, the bars in this historic neighborhood were often only one storefront wide. And while some of the current bars are less egregious than others – and several would be welcomed under different circumstances – the combination of bars together has created big problems. There are now 11 bars within one block of the Cross Street Market that have a capacity of more than 150 people.
Promotion companies run pub crawls, including one event on March 9 known as the Irish Stroll. Advertised as “Baltimore’s Longest St. Patty’s Party,” it ran from noon to 9 p.m., and organizers sold 5,000 tickets.
Closing off Cross Street
Yet the narrow streets in Federal Hill have stayed the same. The community doesn’t have the infrastructure to handle thousands of drinkers.
There are actually so many drunken young people that, citing safety reasons, police have long been closing Cross Street at Charles and Light streets every Friday and Saturday night, starting at roughly 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Parking, which was always hard, has gotten even tougher. The sidewalks near these bars are routinely packed with so many young people that some of the older, more frail residents say they’re afraid they’ll be knocked over – and walk in the street instead.
Ed Kelly, who lives on Poultney Street, just behind the part of Cross Street where Ryleigh’s and Stalking Horse are, told a public meeting in April that the rats, noise and stench are so bad he can’t even use the deck of his home.
“I’ve seen many changes in this neighborhood, and many of them have been good,” said Kelly, noting the home has been in his family for more than 100 years. “But it feels like we’re being overwhelmed by bars.”
Loving City Life – Up to a Point
Many look to Fells Point, which had similar problems 15 to 20 years ago, as an example of a city neighborhood that was able to rein in the revelers and make a safer place that ultimately attracted better retail, more families and increased property values.
And it’s still a fun place to go, with plenty of restaurants and bars. That’s why so many people love these communities. I relish walking out my door onto a street of pretty rowhomes and being so close to so much. In just a few minutes, my boys, ages 5 and 7, can be running up the hill to the gorgeous Federal Hill Park, where they’ll always find other kids to play with.
When they were toddlers, we made it to the Science Center almost every day. We can walk to get a haircut, grab a bagel for lunch, buy flowers at the market, or have a great dinner at cozy Regi’s Bistro.
The density means that we bump into neighbors and friends wherever we go.
The South Baltimore area also has a thriving network of more than 1,200 families, many of whom have worked hard to make Federal Hill Prep and Thomas Johnson Elementary schools places that would attract and retain families, something Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has been pushing for.
Increasingly, people in their 20s are moving to Federal Hill, according to numbers from a demographic survey commissioned by Federal Hill Main Street this spring.
While many of these residents are surely going to the bars, several we’ve become friends with have told us they now go to Fells Point bars instead. They report the Federal Hill bars are often overcrowded, with bartenders over-serving obviously drunk people.
Said one young woman who didn’t want to be named for fear of upsetting her friends who work in the bars: “People come here to get wasted.”
Liquor Board Under Scrutiny
For the bar owners, very few of whom live in the neighborhood, the business is lucrative.
One of the owners of Ryleigh’s Oyster, Brian McComas, who is behind the beer garden proposal, reported at a public meeting in April that his place made $3.9 million in sales last year alone.
Even though the bar group, the Federal Hill Hospitality Association, pays for four off-duty police officers to patrol the area on weekend nights, and veterans from the non-profit Baltimore Station to clean Cross Street on weekend mornings, it’s hardly enough to mitigate the problems the bars cause the neighborhood.
The situation has attracted the attention of local politicians. The four elected state representatives in Baltimore’s 46th district, which includes Federal Hill, joined together to write a letter last week to the liquor board.
They recommended that no transfers or expansions of liquor licenses be approved without signed agreements with the affected neighborhood. The letter also calls for more enforcement of the liquor laws.
All this comes at a time when the liquor board is under scrutiny. (The board is a state agency made up of three appointed commissioners and an agency that handles the day-to-day work.)
An independent audit released in March by the state’s Department of Legislative Services found widespread problems in inspections, disciplinary procedures and management.
The audit also found that, in violation of state law, the board allowed many inactive liquor licenses, and licenses that should have expired, to be renewed.
In the case of Crossbar, the Federal Hill neighborhood group is challenging the validity of the license in several ways, including that the passage of time since the bar has been open exceeds the limits set down in the law.
Turning into “The Block”?
Meanwhile, one of the biggest casualties may be Federal Hill’s reputation.
People from other parts of the city who used to dine and shop in Federal Hill have stopped coming because it’s too hard to find parking, and streets are often closed because of bar events and pub crawls.
And after a few bad experiences running into drunken young people, visitors don’t come back.
That means that many shops have closed or moved on to other neighborhoods. The popular Zelda Zen, the gem of Federal Hill, is now in Fells Point, where business has doubled.
Annamarie Christopher, who has run an Italian deli for 12 years near Cross and Light streets, says she doesn’t have the clientele anymore to keep her place going.
“I’ve watched this sophisticated neighborhood turn into ‘The Block,’” said Christopher, referring to Baltimore’s group of strip joints.
Ironically, among the key criteria in the state law that governs liquor licenses are two points: the bar cannot impact the quality of life of the neighborhood – and there must be a proven need for the bar in the community.
In a survey of 542 South Baltimore residents last August, done by the Federal Hill Business Association and Federal Hill Main Street, residents reported needing many businesses such as a bakery, an adult clothing store, more restaurants, a toy store and a grocery store. Getting a new bar was near the bottom of the list. We’re already overwhelmed with the ones we have.
This spring, from my second-story window, I’ve watched four young men, drunk and fighting over money in the middle of the intersection of William Street and Warren Avenue. A drunk driver careening through the neighborhood rammed a parked car, smashing it into a tree.
Intoxicated young girls, who said they weren’t from Federal Hill, were swinging on the white lights we put up for a sidewalk party. They ripped them down, broke our lamppost and giggled all the way out of the neighborhood.
“There’s no way you can have that many young people drinking that much and not have something bad happen,” said Courtney McConnell, a 23-year-old who bought her first home in Federal Hill six months ago, before she realized that the bar scene here was so out of control.
For her, a four-block walk to the CVS drugstore at night is like a running a gauntlet, between the guys hooting at her from the sidewalks and fights in the parking lot of the nearby furniture store.
Some residents, who are quite close to the bar scene and can’t take it anymore, have already decided to move. Real estate agents and residents report that other owners are increasingly renting their homes. Others are trying to fight for a place we love.
Rosalie McCabe is one of many residents who believe that – with help from the city and state – the balance between bars and residents in Federal Hill can be restored.
She and her husband have lived here for 26 years and raised their son here. She’s a classic city dweller who loves walking to the stadiums for Ravens and Orioles games, going out to neighborhood restaurants, and savoring a glass of wine on her stoop. She started the neighborhood’s 4th of July parade, which has become a cherished ritual for hundreds of families.
When I ran into her a few weeks ago on the street, she had petitions under her arm and a determined look in her eyes. Said McCabe: “We have to take back the neighborhood.”
Diana K. Sugg is a freelance writer living in Federal Hill. She is raising two young sons and volunteering on the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association’s liquor advisory committee. For 10 years, she was a reporter at The Baltimore Sun, where she won the Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting.