Back in 1966, as Sen. Barbara Mikulski spearheaded the crusade against the city’s proposed federal highway expansion—a project that would link I-83 to I-95 while subsequently demolishing a portion of historic Fells Point—preservationists organized the first annual Fell’s Point Fun Festival as a fundraiser to protect the beloved waterfront neighborhood.
“They stood up and fought it tooth and nail,” says Joy Giordano, executive director of Fell’s Point Main Street, which stepped in to help revive the event in 2012. “It has truly been a community festival since day one.”
Though the three-day fête, returning Sept. 30- Oct. 2, maintains its roots as a fundraiser to benefit the Preservation Society of Fell’s Point, its offerings and attractions have evolved significantly throughout its 50-year run.
To celebrate the anniversary, thousands will crowd the cobblestone streets surrounding Broadway Square this weekend to browse handmade wares from more than 100 local crafters, sample eats and drinks from fan-favorite food purveyors, and enjoy the festival’s largest music lineup to-date—featuring upwards of 20 acts ranging from Prince-tribute and ’90s cover bands to local rockers Kelly Bell Band and Jimmie’s Chicken Shack.
Dubbed the longest-running community festival in Baltimore City, the gathering aims to be inclusive for locals and visitors alike, with attractions including an art wall curated by seniors at MICA, a family-friendly Kids Zone with face-painting and balloon animals, and an International Plaza on the 600 Block of East Broadway showcasing Hispanic music and culture.
One of the many noteworthy changes implemented over the years occurred when organizers got rid of the festival’s beer gardens in 2013. Thanks to a new open container provision, attendees can now drink anywhere inside the festival's grounds.
Giordano says that, in the midst of the neighborhood’s recent development and expansion (The Rec Pier’s Sagamore Pendry Hotel is slated to open in 2017), it’s exciting to bring back a familiar tradition.
“Fells Point is such a wonderful blend of old and new,” she says. “And the festival is a great opportunity to celebrate our roots and remember what it was, while also taking a look at the vision for what it’s about to be.”
A number of small businesses in the area also participate by extending their footprint onto the sidewalk for the weekend. South Broadway stalwart Bertha’s Mussels, for example, will be shucking oysters and selling mussels, t-shirts, and its signature “Eat Bertha’s Mussels” bumper stickers outside of the restaurant all weekend long.
“It’s our busiest weekend of the year,” says co-owner Andy Norris, whose parents Tony and Laura opened Bertha’s, the neighborhood’s first-ever sit-down restaurant, in 1972. “We’re proud to say we’ve been here almost all 50 years—we only missed a few.”
A lifetime Fells Point resident, Norris says that some of his fondest memories of the festival include seeing community members pedal homemade pierogies and lemon sticks from their stoops in the early ’80s.
“At that time, so many cool and funky people living here just came out on the street and put everything about themselves into the festival,” he says. “That’s what made it so special—all of their eclectic funkiness. Fells Point was just a raw, artsy gem.”
Just down the street, neighborhood newbie 8 Ball Meatball will be participating in its first-ever fun fest with a sidewalk sale of grab-and-go street food like crab balls and meatball sandwiches.
“There’s no doubt that Baltimoreans love a good party,” says 8 Ball owner Paul Weitz, who has lived in the neighborhood since 2009. “I love walking around in a big group and popping into all of the bars. The outdoor vibe combined with the waterfront and the façade of the businesses is all a part of the overall uniqueness and aura of Fells.”
Local boutique Poppy & Stella will also be getting in on the fun, discounting all of its merchandise by 20 percent throughout the weekend in honor of the festival.
Owner Kelley Heuisler has enjoyed watching the Fell’s Point Fun Festival evolve in the eight years since she opened her shop, and always bears its history in mind.
“It’s interesting that Fells Point was almost [gone] 50 years ago,” she says. “The fact that we were able to overcome that, and band together and survive, is a testament to the neighborhood as a whole. The fabric of Fells is a really beautiful representation of the best that Baltimore has to offer.”