Fells Point Without Tugboats
Allen Baker’s photographs document a life on the water
Published: February 13, 2013
Teenage wharf rat Allen Baker lost his virginity to a biker chick a dozen years his senior on a 19th century tugboat called the Pinners Point down at the foot of Broadway. This was more than 30 years ago. Baker wasn’t old enough to drive a car, and tugboats were still a part of day-to-day life in Fells Point.
Though cherries continue to pop more or less as they always have, it’s unlikely that a Baltimore kid will ever again cross from innocence to knowledge in so nautical a manner.
The 21st century combo of homeland security and fastidious insurance companies have killed casual visits to maritime vessels; heavy industry has vanished from Crabtown’s old seafaring villages; and after a near-ubiquitous presence since the age of steam, tugboats only dock at Thames and Broadway on infrequent visits.
The boats were there when Baker needed them. Not so much to ease him into manhood—that was a bit of a fluke: he was standing watch on the Pinner when love pulled up in an El Camino—as to salvage his young and troubled life.
“The boats probably saved me from a life of incarceration, being a thief or a wino,” says Baker, 46, a licensed captain of the vessels he so loved. “I had my first ride in ’76 on a Curtis Bay tug called the Kings Point. I was 10 years old and I knew where I wanted my life to go.”
It wasn’t long before this kid started to bring the first of many cameras he has used to make images around the world of all things maritime.
Baker soon inherited his paternal grandfather’s Argus C3, and his habit of riding and photographing tugs at work—like Baker-Whiteley’s America, a long-scrapped diesel from a long-defunct company—was supported by a $25-a-week job at an electronics store near his home. And home was a place he didn’t want to be.
“In my house, the way I grew up, getting film developed was considered a luxury,” says Baker, whose father, Fred Baker Jr., worked the Sparrows Point shipyard. “All I ever saw was people going to work every day. College was never discussed.”
Soon, Baker dropped out of high school and moved in with Stevens “Steve” Bunker, a waterfront sea dog and keeper of parrots. Bunker advised Baker to read Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana, which the youngster dutifully did. As a result, the Baltimore that disappeared endures in Baker’s shots, where wharves, coal piers, railroad trestles, and factories abound. He has at least six boxes of maritime negatives, an archive he is working to turn into a book.
Until he does, the exterior of the Sip and Bite diner will have to do.
When Tony Vasiliades took over the Sip and Bite from his father, George, in 2007, changes at the Boston Street landmark followed. Outside, stainless steel replaced Formstone. Around the shiny metal are dull gray panels. Upon these panels, Vasiliades intends to put images of the Baltimore harbor from Allen Baker’s collection.
Right now, Baker’s on the shore, waiting for work to come out of New York. Going to sea isn’t as much fun as it was when he was a kid.
Ships are rarely in port for more than 18 hours. And there are many more rules and regulations, which Baker learned the hard way in 1999: Working as an able-bodied seaman on the MV President Kennedy container ship, he was found negligent in a Long Beach shipboard accident that killed a crew member.
The following year, in Seattle, Baker failed a Coast Guard drug test for marijuana and had his seaman’s papers and officer’s license revoked. Getting back the privilege to sail—receiving “clemency” from the Coast Guard before retaking all the necessary tests—took five years. In that time, Baker stocked supermarket shelves for $9 an hour. He says he has not had a drink or gotten high in 12 years.
Perhaps the biggest change in working the waterfront, the one that seems to nettle him the most, is how difficult it is, in our post-9/11 world, to poke around the waterfront to take pictures without arousing suspicion.
“Train buffs have the same problem,” says Baker. “Anyway, there’s nothing to shoot on Broadway anymore. We live in a tugboat-less Fells Point.”
> Email Rafael Alvarez