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Competing Interests Grapple For the Future of Federal Hill

Little Havana in the Federal Hill neighborhood of Baltimore - Arianne Teeple
Little Havana in the Federal Hill neighborhood of Baltimore - Arianne Teeple
Change can be a breath of fresh air for a neighborhood. It can also be a source of controversy. For residents and business owners in Federal Hill, continued evolution has put the neighborhood's direction in question.

Fed Hill -- as it's often called -- continues to grow as an entertainment destination, and this growth in the nightlife scene has become a primary source of tension. Contention between the residents and bar owners culminated in a series of recent hearings before the Baltimore City Liquor Board. Three popular Federal Hill establishments defended their licenses before the board in an action spearheaded by Paul Robinson, president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association. The Stalking Horse, Illusions, and Ryleigh's Oyster were called to defend their licenses on a host of complaints including rowdiness, noise, and litter.

For Illusions owners Spencer and Ken Horsman, the hearing was just another chapter in the bar's ongoing fight to stay open. The Horsmans have collected a thick file of letters of support from local residents and business owners who feel that Illusions is an asset to the neighborhood. Illusions has, however, faced opposition from the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association before. It was recently one of the first Baltimore establishments to secure a live entertainment license under the city's reformed entertainment licensing laws -- a license which was heavily opposed by the Association.

"We want to expand and advertise more with different shows. We've been hesitant to do that while there's concern about if we're going to be able to operate." says Spencer Horsman.

Neighborhood residents are sharply divided about Federal Hill's burgeoning entertainment scene. The trash, noise, and parking problems created by the neighborhood's weekend party atmosphere annoy some residents who want the neighborhood to be more of an upscale, family oriented area with more boutiques and galleries.

"Even though one or two nicer restaurants have opened the key business here is the spring break-style bar hopping that goes on every Friday and Saturday evening. Over the last few years the beverage driven businesses seem to be the only ones that are expanding and thriving," says neighborhood resident Michael Weiner. "The majority of the entertainment and revenue streams that make up Federal Hill lack culture," he continues.

Not all Federal Hill residents, however, are disturbed by the bar scene and the issues surrounding it. Some Federal Hill residents see it as part and parcel of life in the city.

"I grew up in New York City and have always had the feeling that busy streets are safe streets, so a knot of young people weaving down my block makes me feel safe, not angry. If that's our worst problem we're in good shape," says Federal Hill resident Catherine Hammond.

Federal Hill has recently seen several boutiques close. The proliferation of empty storefronts on Charles Street and empty stalls in the Cross Street market attest to a neighborhood in transition. Dog boutique Lucky Lucy's Canine Cafe, lingerie shop The Bottom Drawer, and longtime neighborhood florist My Flower Box have all shuttered within the last year. Neighborhood business owners contend that if the residents want less of a party scene and more of an environment of boutiques, they need to buy local instead of shopping at big box retailers in the county. The Federal Hill Business Association has been actively working to promote the neighborhood with advertising and creative events in order to help local businesses survive. Local business owners hope that as the economy improves, residents will be more supportive.

"I've been here for four years and I think that while things are a bit shaky for some of the businesses, especially retail, the community will support us and pull us through this time. As business owners we have to step up everything when times get tough," says Rachel Costello, LMT, co-owner of wellness spa Apothecary Wellness.

The controversy over the future of Federal Hill caused by the neighborhood's growth as an entertainment destination doesn't dampen many residents' enthusiasm for living there. For them, the neighborhood's activity and convenience outweigh the annoyances caused by the weekend party scene.

"I purchased a home in Federal Hill four years ago and love all the activity here. It illustrates the evolving, 'keeping-it-new' uniqueness of the area. I also find the large majority of my neighbors are especially interactive, friendly, and kind, as opposed to other cities I've resided in," says Maria Diaz, AIA of Gaudreau Inc.

The sharp divide of opinions is a symptom of Federal Hill's evolution. As the entertainment scene grows and the boutiques struggle in the down economy, competing interests will continue to vie to define the historic neighborhood's future.

Amy McNeal is a freelance writer and Bmore Media's Innovation and Jobs News editor.

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Photos by Arianne Teeple:

1) Little Havana in the Federal Hill neighborhood of Baltimore
2) Rachel Costello, co-owner of Apothecary Wellness
3) Massage at Apothecary Wellness
4) Apothecary Wellness
5) Illusions Bar and Lounge co-owner Spencer Horsman
6) A custom drink at Illusions Bar and Lounge
8) Illusions Bar and Lounge

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