Disclaimer: At some points in this piece I will mention things I have “heard” from others. That’s what it is. If I could not find verification, I just told you where I heard it. I trust my neighbors but I cannot solidify some of this information despite some serious googling.
A few weekends ago Chas and I were at R House (not to be confused with OUR house). We were having a beer and when Chas went to the bathroom, I found myself itching for a pen. The guys next to me were about 65 and having the kind of conversation I must eavesdrop upon. First one said to the other, “If I didn’t already live in Baltimore and were visiting for work and came here [R House] or Hampden, I’d just pick up and move here.” Baltimore compliments are like little massages for my ears so I was with them. They moved their conversation on to growing up in Baltimore City. And the other one said, “When I was coming up, the baddest kids I knew were the ones from Hampden. And, now look at it.” He’s right, now look at it. What he may not realize though is that the baddest kids’ grandkids are still traipsing around Hampden dodging yuppies and hipsters and doin’ what they gotta. It’s a common crossroads nationwide. The new buys out or eminent-domains-out the old. If you’re going to buy into it and be one of those hipsters or one of those yuppies, I think you have to try to understand and in some way contribute to those who were there first, rather than just paint over their remnants in Agreeable Grey and call it a “hot new neighborhood” when it’s not new at all.
In 2017 Hampden really has three distinct facets. Old. Weird. Fancy. I think Chas and I take part in all three, though, he really hates the fancy. I try to hate it to support him and be true to my East Baltimore roots, but I just love kombucha and yoga and IPAs and $5 greeting cards.
When Chas and I were tilling our garden earlier this month we tried to really do it right. Usually we throw down some dirt, toss in some plants, and call it a garden. This year we decided to dig deep and replace some of the clay we know is down there waiting to choke our roots and stunt our peppers. Throughout this dig, we found rusty screws and nails, old pieces of ancient metal, pottery shards, plastic, and enough glass to build a new sculpture at the AVAM. I nursed my gardening injuries from glass encounters as we bemoaned the trash in our vegetable beds. I had heard before from some neighbors that our neighborhood had been built on an old dump but as I shook my phone dry after pouring out a watering can over it, the guy across the alley struck up a conversation. He said that from our street through the Rotunda was THE landfill for The Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. Was the debris we were finding really that old? Why was it surfacing now? Are we growing a bunch of lead-laden vegetables? It’s funny (scary?) how you can create an entire neighborhood over the past and the past still finds its way up. As much as I want my garden to succeed, I feel like an archeologist every time I find something weird out back.
When that man at R House (again, he was not at our house, but I am beginning to wonder about the name choice of R House because I always find myself saying “Oh we were at R House, not our house but R House,” as I draw an R in the air with my finger. It’s downright confusing.) was talking about the baddest kids from Hampden, I knew I had to do some exploring. Residential Hampden sprung up as housing for mill workers in the 19th century. Woodberry, just down the hill from us, is like a mill graveyard, if that graveyard now had reclaimed wood, rusty wheels, shabby chic runeth over, and rents in the multi-thousands.
When the neighborhood began it was actually not part of Baltimore City but was annexed by the city in 1889. Hampden mills produced flour, sail cloths made of cotton duck, tires (or if you’re from Baltimore, tarrs), fishing nets, ice cream cones, envelopes, train parts, weapons, the columns for the U.S. Capitol Building, raincoats, Stieff silver, carved rock, and I’m sure other things that came and went without being recorded. The mill workers flocked to Hampden from Appalachia country of Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia and settled in these very homes. This migration is what made Hampden a white working class neighborhood and the flight of the mills is likely what then transformed it into something of a white ghetto by the 1970s. This unverified quote from Wikipedia will cause a collective “Ohhhh” from my Hampdenite friends: “During the 1970s and 1980s, many residents felt the area endured a long-term economic downturn. During this period, crime and drug usage increased along with changes in the dynamic of social life in Hampden. Like other areas of Baltimore, school dropout rates increased along with rising illiteracy rates while illegal drugs and prostitution became prevalent.” Ohhhh! Right? This makes a lot of things we see today make total sense. Such as the drug dealers I’ve seen at Chestnut and 38th in which a group of four or five men and women with a baby in a stroller boldly chat about their takes for the day. Or the cars that pull up under a tree, make an exchange through the window, and then drive anonymously into the Hampden night. Or when I am running on a nearby path, Stony Run, calling myself Katniss, and thinking what I always think: How does this exist in the middle of Baltimore City? I’m brought back to reality when I smell weed or see two people huddled over some likely sinister project under the bridge. Don’t worry, Mom and Dad, yes I can outrun them and they almost always avoid all contact, even eye.
So yes, there are certainly sad remnants of the mills’ and the neighborhood’s repurposing. One which Chas bemoans is that Griffith’s Tavern is up for sale. It’s one of a dwindling handful of old dives still open in Hampden. And maybe only one of two where I’d feel safe hanging out. Griffith’s is quintessential old Hampden with two beers on tap: Yueng Ling and Natty Boh. The bathroom is terrifying. But, it’s sad to see it go because you can almost guarantee whatever button-down-shirt-brown-belt-tucked-in-sockless-loafer-wearing-normie buys it will flip it and add an e on the end of a word that requires no e on the end. Puke.
Also to my earlier point, it’s not that I wouldn’t feel safe at a place the likes of the Bloody Bucket or Dimitri’s, it’s just that…well, yea, I guess I wouldn’t feel safe. The first time I went to Dimitri’s a woman came in real close to Lauren and me and said, “I’m gonna go smoke,” and pointed to her boyfriend who looked like a shorter, more overweight version of Santa wearing a leather vest. “If any woman tries to talk to him, come get me” and then something about fighting or cutting a bitch. I don’t think we responded. What does one say? “Okay! I got your back!”
There’s a house on the corner across the alley from me that screams old world Hampden. People cycle in and out, cats wander, and up until a few months ago, a very old woman held down the back porch in all elements. The front plaster is sinking into the soil and the backyard looks like the one remaining section of the century-old landfill. I learned from a neighbor that her grandkids have been selling drugs out of the house. Duh. Recently, they put Grandma in a nursing home and a developer bought her house. And here we go around again. It’s a tug between appreciating authenticity and wanting to ward off drug activity in your neighborhood. Those grandkids need mentors.
There are also the old parts of Hampden that make you smack your own forehead. These old photos of the Improved Order of the Red Men found here speak for themselves. Eeps.
My favorite of Hampden’s traits is weirdness. And don’t worry I will be less verbose than I was for “old.” My favorite example of Hampden’s personality was on another jog through Stony Run. After passing an entire living room set perfectly arranged in Wyman Park and thinking, “God, Hampden is weird” I headed south toward Remington and happened to look up. There in the tree: a wheelchair. 30 feet in the air. No reason. No explanation. No writhing person at the bottom. Guess I’ll never know…
Then there’s the entire existence of Lou Catelli, real name Will Bauer. He’s a Hampden mainstay (though rumor has it he doesn’t live here). He attracts businesses to Hampden and does a pretty damn good job. If you’re interested in entering a rabbit hole, google him. Year-round, he wears shorts, tee shirts, and a man bun complete with chopsticks. I once walked by the Food Market, a nice restaurant, and there was Catelli shorts, bun, and all, having dinner with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake.
Catelli also rides an adult tricycle, which oddly enough was stolen from The Avenue two weeks ago, a crime completely caught on tape by the Hampden Family Center security camera. The crime is also documented all over Baltimore news sources. Have you seen it?
BREAKING NEWS! The trike has been returned. Thanks for your email, Tighe! http://www.baltimorefishbowl.com/stories/the-mayor-of-hampden-gets-his-stolen-tricycle-back/
More evidence of Hampden’s unique character is its celebration of Christmas. I whine each year as suburbanites consume our parking places but living four blocks north of this tourist attraction is actually pretty cool. Hampdenites also use it as collateral to get the police to respond to crime in the area i.e. “We won’t have 34th Street Lights this year unless we get more cops on Hampden streets.” It’s been lighting up for decades and I think we all hope it continues for decades more.
Each year at Hampden’s Hampdenfest in September is the exciting Toilet Race whose website boasts: “Toilet Races combine the do-it-yourself ingenuity of soapbox races with toilets, gravity, and crowds of your favorite neighbors.” Information on enrollment in this year’s Toilet Race can be found here.
I know Portland and Austin have billboards and tee shirts encouraging people to “Keep Portland Weird” and “Keep Austin Weird.” I just don’t think we even need that sort of propaganda. Weird just happens organically here.
If you don’t believe me, ask John Waters. You can easily run into him in Hampden at the Giant deli counter, or Rocket to Venus, or outside of the back pain place on Hickory. Whatever you do though, do not watch Pink Flamingos.
When Chas and I bought our house, we lived across from a vacant parking lot and a row of strong-smelling evergreens. I loved the lot because kids rode their bikes in circles around it every afternoon. It felt very Mayberry and happily simple. Within 4 months, the trees were ripped out and the lot was pebbles. Bozzuto bought the land to turn into multi-use space and apartments. When Bozzuto took on this project, he/they knew what he/they were doing. Taking the old Rotunda, a 1920s gem and adding posh and what passes for classy in 2015, the site became THE ICON. Excuse me while I puke.
We lived through two years of early morning Saturday construction, two years of back-up-beeping, construction workers stalking parking spots, and noise, just constant noise. I had to replace four tires because I ran over nails left by the construction, not to mention the dozens of screws, nails, and trash I picked up and PUT IN A DAMN TRASHCAN, you know, like a human does.
For these years our front door view was a progression from hideous and into anywhere-USA-apartments. Now that they’re here, I hate them a little less. The noise is over. The people are always walking around which helps with the drug deals. But, man it’s fancy. The birth of THE ICON feels like the death of a piece of Hampden. It doesn’t match with the Red Men–thank god. But it also doesn’t go with the women in muumuus and the tall updos. It’s not a rusty car in a backyard. It’s not Baltimore’s own formstone or beer bellies at Griffith’s. It’s not adult tricycles or life-sized cow statues in the front yard. It’s the antithesis of a John Waters’ freak show. And when the red velvet seats of the old Rotunda movie theatre were ripped up to make way for the CineBistro (gag me with a spoon), Satan was probably smiling.
I hate to admit I love Mom’s Organic Market because I wanted to hate it–but they have free coffee all the time! I am a member of the yoga studio at THE ICON–and I am doing their yoga teacher training. The new nail salon gives a free three minute massage with any service! And the Starbucks opens at 5:30, unlike the other nine independent coffee shops in Hampden which don’t unlock until 7:00 or even 8 a.m.! Yes, I drink the Kool Aid, but at least I feel bad about it. It’s a total fancy monstrosity and it’s not weird or old. But here we are. So when the juice bar opens up, we will roll our eyes. When the line for the Charmery spans seven storefronts, we will grumble. When Griffith’s finally goes to its dive bar grave the the Bulojee Cafe Grille and Pube` (haha) opens up, Chas may cry. But these are the tradeoffs for living in a cool place–fancy people like it too–and sometimes, non-fancy people start to do fancy things. Oops.
When House of Cards filmed in Hampden for season 4, I was shocked to see our own The Avenue depicted as small town Texas. Somehow it worked, though, and Hampden showed her best face. In another episode, Rocket to Venus is depicted as a D.C. bar (slightly insulting). This little hood looks as good on screen as it does in person.
Hampden is just so picturesque. I tell people it’s like living in a resort town. I can walk two blocks away and have the experience of being on vacation. And then I snap back to reality because we’ve run into our neighbors in a bar where Sonny is playing the bagpipes and we all decide to share a drink. I again realize I’m in Hampden, Baltimore and what a cool place this is.
I live in a small town within a major (albeit small major) city. I am in an on-and-off book club with just women from my immediate block. I can text neighbors to get someone to help Chas jump his car and get three responses within five minutes. My friends two doors down are volunteering at my school, just because. I don’t really count the apartment people but most of my block I can call friends. I see the same characters every Saturday and watch them live, and maybe they’re watching me live too. There’s the guy with the climbing shoes, the talkative Baltimore City judge at Common Ground, the woman with the limp who’s unstoppable, the redhead boys (pretty sure they’re drug dealers), the man with the white Samoyed, the lady whose Golden Retriever Charlie sits down every 8 steps, the little white dog and her extremely shy owner who wears knit gloves year-round, vest-wearing, arm-swinging speed walker, the crunchy kids with leather jacket dad, and so on.
The juxtaposition of the old world, by Baltimore standards, and gentrification is by no means unique. But Hampden is unique. And I’m so fortunate to live here.
These are hardly solutions to the many horrors that gentrification creates but here are my ideas (only some I have implemented) to help the grandkids of “the baddest kids” and the area where they and I live. Please check some out yourself, even if you don’t live here.
- Trash ministry (coined by Nancy Papa Doran)–picking up trash in the neighborhood, others see you, and see that people do care.
- Volunteer at the Hampden Family Center or look at the in-kind donation wish list.
- Attend Hampden Community Council meetings–always extremely entertaining.
- Check out Thread and/or get others to.
- See if Reading Partners operates at Hampden Elementary and see if I can fit it into my new schedule next year.
- Promote Big Brothers Big Sisters in Hampden, possibly via Chas if he joins the HCC Board.
- Join the HCC Board.
- Actually attend Get Trashed Tuesday.
- Email Mary Pat Clarke whenever I have an issue. #MPC
- Smile at people on the streets of Hampden, even the apartment people.
My sources include but are not necessarily limited to:
- Kevin from across the alley.
- Pam, Linda, Kristin, Delia, and other neighbors on my block.
- Wikipedia (linked above)
- https://baltimoreheritage.org/project/explore-hampden-history/#.WUOrc7wrJmA (linked above)
- http://www.baltimoreorless.com/ (linked above)
- http://hampdenfest.blogspot.com/p/toilet-race-entry-form-2012.html (linked above)
- https://www.christmasstreet.com/ (linked above)