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Phil Cunneff: Jazz cat finds a home

For much of his 48 years, Phil Cunneff has lived the vagabond life of a jazz musician. His various addresses have included New York and Boston, Charlotte and Richmond, north Jersey and Washington, D.C.

But on his first visit to Fells Point, back in 1986, he knew he had found something different. A fellow jazz drummer had asked him to fill in for some gigs at Bertha's Restaurant , a well-known tavern in the heart of the bar scene on Broadway.

“I was followin' the directions”, he says, his native Virginia drawl occcasionally lopping off the “g” from his “ing” words. “I got off the interstate. I took Pratt Street to Broadway, and I came straight down Broadway and I was lookin' for Bertha's”.

The stories come out in long, detailed streams, just the way you might think a jazz musician would talk. With a pointed patch of gray beard on his chin, he looks part jazz beatnik (he's wearing a black beret) and part Col. Sanders.

“I saw the water and I saw these street lights and I went, like, 'Damn, I don't even know why I like this yet'. But this felt very right”.

He moved to Baltimore two years later and formed his own jazz group, playing regularly around town and often in Fells Point at Bertha's, The Cat's Eye Pub and other local hangouts.

Fells Point was a different place then, still a rough, blue-collar place. There were no trendy coffee shops like The Daily Grind , where Cunneff is entertaining a couple of out-of-town visitors on a Friday night. As he talks, a man who identified himself only as Turque pulls up a chair.

Turque is an old Fells Point regular who recently moved to Pikesville. He has a beard and his hair is pulled back in a short, tight ponytail. They talk about the old days -- the nasty stevedores working at the end of the seaport era, the less-than-savory characters, the unsolved murders.

“Back in the '60s and '70s, Fells Point wasn't a place to hang out”, Turque says. “You come down here and got fucked up, you ended up in the river. That's the way things were“.

Times have changed

They have a lively conversation about all the changes of the past three decades -- the rehabbed houses with the fancy doors and stain-glass windows, the new construction, the Yuppie shops. The roots of that stretch back to the early '80s. A bunch of artists settled in the area, drawn by the lure of cheap waterfront housing, and they started fixing the place up one property at a time.

They did their job too well. In the past decade, property values in Fells Point have soared dramatically. A small house on Ann or Thames that sold for $1,000 25 years ago could easily sell for $200,000 or more today. The starving artists and other lower-income types are gone, driven out by the high prices.

“I started bitching about that when it first happened”, Cunneff says. “But then I'm also realizing that downtown is moving closer to Fells Point, and all it's really gonna do is enhance property values”.

“I'm hoping they'll keep it like a Georgetown”, Turque answers. “Keep it small, put the shops in, rehab the buildings. But not tear down whole blocks”.

Cunneff and his wife, JoAnne Schmitz, lived for a few years in Upper Fells Point, near Patterson Park, before moving to their current home, a three-story rowhouse on Bond Street. He teaches during the day and plays in clubs at night. She works as a computer programmer for The Sun.

Yeah, he admits, the bar crowds can be a pain in the ass.

“There are 60-some bars around here”, he says. “There are people who get drunk and walk back to their cars and go, 'Woohoo.' ... Places like Bohager's and 723 and Moby's and, to some extent, The Green Turtle -- they're like drunk warehouses: discount prices, we move 'em in, and we move 'em out”.

And yeah, parking can be a problem. The $20 a year he pays for a neighborhood parking permit doesn't guarantee him a space near his house. Just the right to park without getting ticketed.

And yeah, police could do more to control the drunk and disorderlies that stumble out of the bars on weekends, and maybe the city could be a little quicker about replacing street lights or fixing pot holes.

But it doesn't matter. You'll be seeing him behind his drum kit at the Cat's Eye on Monday nights for awhile. Or you might see him perched on a stool at Bertha's or relaxing in a booth in Duda's.

He's not leaving Fells Point anytime soon.

“I like living in a place where there's a lot of bars, where there's a lot of restaurants, where there's a lot of stuff going on... If it's too quiet, I get uncomfortable“.

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