For more than a decade, working-class residents of the Fells Point neighborhood here have watched uneasily as houses and businesses in their community have been bought up by developers, stripped of their 20th-century facades and returned to the quaint red-brick style of the 18th and 19th centuries.
A faded maritime hub on the Baltimore Harbor, Fells Point is now dotted with fashionable shops and gentrified residential enclaves. As urban renewal surges across the area, ancient waterfront warehouses have been converted into expensive condominium complexes. The city is planning for additional shops and residential renewal throughout the neighborhood.
But longtime residents -- many who are of Polish, Ukrainian, German or Spanish extraction, whose ancestors laid claim to Fells Point more than a century ago -- are fighting the seemingly inevitable tide of change.
They fear that the rising property taxes that accompany increased property values will drive them from Fells Point. In the past few months, some of them have organized a campaign to block what they believe will greatly accelerate gentrification: the expansion of the Fells Point Historic District.
"This is going to be nothing but another Georgetown," said Annette Sager, a 57-year-old office cleaner who is helping to lead the fight. "The rich are going to be in and the poor are going to be out."
The current Fells Point Historic District consists roughly of a two-by-four-block area adjacent to the waterfront. A proposed expansion of 160 acres would take in streets well back from the waterfront and would more than double the size of the current historic district.
Historic designation provides state and federal tax credits to people who renovate and restore properties in the district. Sager and her neighbors argue that making Upper Fells Point a historic district will attract more development and cause tax assessments to rise throughout the neighborhood.
Norma Coffin, who with Sager is actively working to defeat the historic district nomination, said that property values have been escalating rapidly in her neighborhood.
A ramshackle three-story house a few doors down from hers on South Ann Street was sold for $1,950 three years ago; it has since been renovated and is now on the market for $159,500, she said. In the meantime, Coffin's annual property taxes have jumped from $600 a year to $1,400.
Coffin, Sager and some of their neighbors formed a group to mount formal opposition to the nomination of Upper Fells Point to the National Register of Historic Places.
Since February, when they learned that a Baltimore preservation group was seeking to have their neighborhood declared a historic district, they have been knocking on doors trying to get the necessary 51 percent of property owners to sign a petition in opposition.
"Everybody is very up in arms about this," said Sager, adding that she believes the nomination process has been rushed and that her group has not been given adequate time to reach all the property owners.
Last Friday was the petition deadline, and although Sager's group failed to get the necessary number of signatures, they won a temporary reprieve this week when the National Park Service agreed to review their complaints and postpone historic designation for at least 30 days.
Proponents of the expanded historic district see it as a Pyrrhic victory. Gentrification and rising property taxes are coming to Fells Point with or without the expansion of the historic district, they say, and low-income residents should be concentrating their energies on getting the city and state to give longtime property owners a break on their taxes.
Carolyn Donkervoot, president of the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point, the group seeking expansion of the Fells Point historic district, talked recently about the area's significance in Baltimore's history.
Fells Point was one of Baltimore's original settlements, said Donkervoot, and its streets remain as they were laid out in 1761 by Edward Fell, son of the original landowner. Because the water at Fells Point is 14 to 16 feet deep at land's edge -- deepest in Baltimore Harbor -- Fells Point was for more than a century a major shipping center.
In addition to shipyards that grew up around Fells Point, which numbered 22 by 1800, Donkervoot said, the area became a hub for ropemaking, sailmaking and other maritime trades. It was home to captains and crews, and was dotted with boarding houses for seamen visiting the port.
By the mid-1800s, said Donkervoot, waves of immigrants arrived and settled in Fells Point, just a ferry ride away from where they touched land at Locust Point terminal. During this period canneries and warehouses were built on the Fells Point waterfront, and South Broadway became the center of Baltimore's garment industry. Donkervoot's group wants to see these old industrial and commercial structures -- many of them now abandoned -- redeveloped.
Fells Point has been in decline as a maritime center for the past 40 to 50 years, as huge container cargo ships have moved to more accessible ports east of Baltimore Harbor. But the ethnic character of the neighborhood has remained.
Donkervoot acknowledges that revitalization of Fells Point is likely to bring in the well-to-do and drive out families that have been there for generations.
"It is not a perfectly clean-cut and clear issue," she said.