By Kate Yoon
Capital News Service
BALTIMORE – Walk into J.R.’s Bar and Grill in Locust Point on a Saturday afternoon and you’re likely to find Bill Lear, 53, chatting about the waterfront or sports while having a beer. There used to be a longshoremen’s hiring hall across the street, and men would flood this bar — before it became “J.R.’s” in 1997 — waiting to be hired for a day’s work at the port.
It’s been decades since houses replaced the hall, but the port workers remain. A good half of the bar’s customers are longshoremen like Lear, or used to be.
For these men who have lived in this South Baltimore waterfront neighborhood for their entire lives, places like J.R.’s are the last vestiges of the “old Locust Point,” where the bartender would know your drink right away.
“It’s kind of like ‘Cheers,’ “Lear said. “You remember that TV show? Everybody knows your name when you walk in.’
“I come here because I know everybody.”
Lear is a “typical waterfront guy,” said Mary Armstrong, 49, owner of J.R.’s. “They’re not office people, you know what I mean? They like to come to the bar and drink, play music, play pool, just talk, bull-crap.”
Born and raised in Locust Point, Lear has lived most of his life in the rowhouse on Reynolds Street that his parents moved into after they got married in 1950. But his family has been in Locust Point since his great-grandparents emigrated from Europe in the late 1800s. His father worked for the railroad for 41 years, and many of his friends and relatives worked on the waterfront.
“Everybody got along with everybody,” he said of his neighborhood. “Everybody treated each other with respect. They used to call this ‘God’s country.’ ”
Armstrong’s son Jason, 25, grew up in Locust Point as well. He moved to Anne Arundel County a year ago, but “every chance I get, I come back. This is where my entire life is — my family, my friends. Friends are family to us.”
Until a few years ago, someone from a work crew would bring longshoremen’s checks to J.R.’s on Thursdays for after-hours pickup, Mary Armstrong said. But the hiring hall moved and much of the port’s work has shifted to Dundalk, Armstrong said, so they stopped bringing the checks there.
“This place was always mobbed because they work right down the street,” she said. “Two or three years ago it was always crazy. I miss them days.”
But things are changing. The close-knit community where everyone knew each other has been shaken by the influx of newcomers attracted by Locust Point’s up-and-coming developments who, Lear said, “walk right by you with their nose in the air, not even thinking to say ‘hi’ or ‘bye’ or anything.”
Newcomers don’t understand what it is to live on the waterfront, the old-timers say Some residents complain about industry noise that disturbs them, but, Lear said, the ship horns and train whistles are the price you pay for living on the water.
“I can sleep through them,” he said. “I think it’s neat because you know you’re living on the water and you know somebody’s saying ‘bon voyage’ or ‘aloha,’ ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’ ’”
“We can be a bit cynical when it comes to change,” Jason Armstrong said. “This is kind of like the Alamo, I guess you could say, for locals. But we love meeting new people.” “I liked it the way it was way back when,” Lear said.
Locust Point has always been a community centered on the waterfront.
“Years and years ago, it seemed like everybody worked on the waterfront,” Lear said.
He began working at the Port of Baltimore in 1975 simply because a lot of people he knew growing up were port workers. Traditionally, longshoremen would show up along the waterfront and be hired on the spot to work with any ships there that day, or, by the 70s, go to a hiring hall.
“It’s very cold in the winter and very hot in the summer,” Lear said, with a laugh when asked about the job. “It’s fun. It’s a bunch of good guys, and it’s a great job.”
When a ship docks in the port of Baltimore, longshoremen meet it and move cargo on and off the ship. It’s not a regular 9-to-5 job. Time is money, so work hours can be long and irregular as the crews work to get a ship out of the port as fast as possible.
“I could work 70 hours one week and only work 30 hours the next week, because It depends on the volume of ships coming in and out of the port,” Lear said. His longest-ever working day lasted from 7 a.m. until midnight, and for six more hours the next day.
“I’m just so used to it, it really doesn’t bother me,” he said.
When the port was slow in the late 70s, Lear was only working a couple days a week doing the “dirty jobs,” because jobs are handed out based on seniority. He left the port and get a “regular 40-hour-a-week job” at places like UPS, until the port’s pace picked back up again and started hiring more.
Going back to work at the port in 2000 was his “best decision ever,” he said. Today, “the port’s been really busy, so I’ve been very fortunate.”
Since he came back, the port’s changed in some ways. These days, longshoremen have to go to a union hiring hall instead of waiting along the waterfront, or, for company- hired men like Lear, log on to a website to check their assigned jobs.
More women now work in a traditionally male field. It isn’t very different, Lear said, except that they had to install women’s bathrooms. “This is 2012, so you’ve got to get with the flow of things, you know?” he said. “This isn’t like living back in the Beaver Cleaver era.” Also, many jobs are no longer done by hand, which means the work gets done faster. But there aren’t as many longshoremen as in the 60s and 70s.
Lear doesn’t think these changes in the industry amount to much. “As long as I’m working, I really don’t care,” Lear said. “As long as I still have a job.”
But Lear and other long-time residents aren’t as nonchalant about the impact of a changing waterfront on once isolated community.
In the last 15 years people moved from other parts of the region and country into Locust Point.
“I mean, it’s change for the good, but it’s change in a totally different way,” Lear said. “They’re building more houses. They’re packing everybody in like sardines.”
Many “yuppies” have moved in, and if they don’t understand what it’s like to live in a traditional community, they may seem rude or disrespectful to old-time residents like Lear.
“Some people pay too much for a rowhouse, and then think they’re better than you for that reason,” he said.
“I’m not saying everybody’s like that, but it seems like a lot of the new people that came into the neighborhood are from outer space or something.”
When Lear was a boy, the neighborhood was so small that he and his friends couldn’t get away with knocking over trash cans or soaping up car windows on Halloween.
“In this neighborhood, if you got caught doing something naughty, your neighbor would come and say something to your parents,” Lear said.
Mary Armstrong added, “You got your rear beat by your neighbors, then your parents.”
Lear’s biggest complaint about the changing neighborhood he grew up in is this: “You don’t know your neighbors.”
Years ago, if a family went on vacation, the next door neighbor would hold the house key so they could feed the dog while they were away. Now, Lear said, “You don’t know if you’re living next door to an ax murderer.”
“As a business owner, (change) is okay to me,” Mary Armstrong chimed in.
The change includes a different demographic in the bar, Armstrong said. It’s still a blue-collar bar — “nothing real fancy” — but younger people and Under Armour workers stop by now too.
“I go with the flow, it don’t matter to me. Money’s money,” she said.
Mary Armstrong’s husband, J.R., worked for 30 years at the grain elevator that now houses the luxury Silo Point condos. He would go to happy hour every day after work until he bought the bar himself.
“My dad, he passed two years ago,” Jason Armstrong said, “but one thing he wanted was to keep this community atmosphere.”