Hampden: A neighborhood of Beauty and Grit

As I pulled onto the main street in Hampden I realized that I would be paying for parking, which would typically be no big deal—but I knew I didn’t have more than fifty cents with me. Lucky for me, as I pulled into the metered spot a man walked over and offered me his ticket. “There’s still two hours on my ticket, I thought you might like it.”

This wasn’t the last of my pleasant encounters in Hampden.

In fact, every encounter was enjoyable. The postman asked me how my day was going, the garbage man shouted good morning as he hung off the back of the truck, and my breakfast was served with a genuine smile. Honestly it felt a bit weird to be around such friendly people. I’m used to suburbia, where the idea of a “friendly neighbor” seems to be fading from existence.

As I walked through Hampden I felt like I was on an episode of Gilmore Girls. If you haven’t seen the show, it’s set in the small town of Stars Hollow where everyone knows each other’s name, there is a town troubadour, and cute, quaint festivals are held in the town square throughout the year. It’s the kind of town I thought could only exist on television.

But, a place like that does exist. It’s real, and in of all places, it’s located in Baltimore city.

Born in the 1800′s as a factory town, Hampden has gone through its fair share of change. When the mills died in the mid-1900′s the town’s population dwindled and it became a rundown Baltimore neighborhood.

“When I first moved here, honestly I was scared,” said Rob Goldberg who moved to Hampden in 1996, before it was labeled one of Baltimore’s “Up and Coming neighborhoods” by The Baltimore Sun, or a  “Hippest Neighborhood” by Forbes.

Since the nineties Hampden has reinvented itself as a thriving community of local businesses. Goldberg now owns a shop just off the beaten path of Hampden’s prime stretch of real estate, The Avenue. “The shops up there are little different from mine, more boutique-y I guess,” explained Goldberg of his shop, Cool Stuff Here. Goldberg sells t-shirts poking fun at Baltimore’s bad reputation. His most popular seller says “Greetings from Baltimore” and features a stick figure holding a bag of money and a gun. Goldberg calls his designs satire, “To me it’s all tongue and cheek. It’s all fun.”

Located in the basement of a row home, he opened Cool Stuff Here after being laid off from his job as a graphic artist, a testament to the faith Hampden residents have in the neighborhood. “I had a lot of help opening the place, some of the other local businesses really went to bat for me,” he said.

The idea that local businesses, who many would consider his competition, would help Goldberg through the process of opening his business seemed too good to be true. But as I made my way up 36th street to the “boutique-y” portion of The Avenue, I found that all the businesses were friendly with one another.

“We work together,” said Johnnise Smith, who works at The Ideal, a local antique store. Inside The Ideal are eclectic pieces of perfectly worn furniture, glitzy costume jewelry and some truly great Baltimore memorabilia. But there’s something better inside the store than merchandise, there’s a true desire to help the customers and the entire community.

As I browsed through the warehouse of history I overheard Smith helping a customer looking for something specific. And by help, I mean she sent the customer next door to the other antique shop, Avenue Antiques. How rare to see a community so eager to work together that they would willingly send their customer to what should be considered a competitor. But so far their community philosophy seems to be working beautifully.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people who come here are happy when they visit, and most will come back,” said Smith. “And that’s good for the whole community.”

Smith is still new to Hampden, she moved here from Hawaii over the summer. She is the wife of a military-man and says that she has lived in places all over the world, but Hampden has captured her heart. She told me that she and her husband are hoping to retire in Hampden.

Hampden over Hawaii? 

“Hawaii is really nice, but there’s not a lot of opportunity there. Baltimore welcomes tenacity and diversity,” said Smith. “There’s a hard hope here—a gritty beauty. And there are opportunities here, you can be whatever you want to be. People are open-mined and creative in Hampden.”

Of all the “Hampdenites” I encountered that morning, Smith stood out to me. Not just because she would choose Hampden over Hawaii, but because she so genuinely believed in the spirit of the neighborhood. I could relate to her; like me, the unusually warm welcome still surprised her.

“The personalities here are eclectic; they generate a warmth that’s always reciprocated. I just hope it keeps going beyond Hampden,” she said.

I hadn’t been in Hampden long, but I was already looking at the houses deciding which one would be mine. I’d been sold on the people, but there’s one more thing I would need to be happy in this neighborhood, and that's good food.

There are dozens of restaurants in Hampden, many of which come with excellent reviews from local publications. A friend of mine recommends Grano because everything is homemade, and Dogwood because of their impressive local and vegetarian options. But after all this friendliness I wanted something without a great review—something that wasn’t necessarily beloved by the people of Hampden, so I made my way to the last strip of shops on The Avenue, where I found Café Hon.

Café Hon is probably the most well-known restaurant in Hampden—and surprisingly it’s not famous for the four-story tall plaster flamingo attached to the outside of the building. Café Hon received mixed reviews after the owner trademarked the beloved Baltimore term “hon.”

The “hon” stereotype features a middle-aged woman with a beehive hairstyle who usually wears spandex tights and blue eye shadow. “Hon” is short for honey, and is a key word in the “Bawlmer” dialect.

Naturally, Hamdenites were upset when Café Hon began profiting from their beloved word a few years back. Recently the trademark was lifted and everyone is welcome to use “Hon” in whatever fashion they would like. But it still made me wonder if Café Hon was a little less neighborly than the other places I had visited so far.

I passed under the giant flamingo, through the door, and was greeted by a life-size statue of Elvis and a smiling waitress. I sat at the breakfast counter, with signs offering me my choice of bread pudding, homemade pie and hot fudge sundaes. I glanced over the breakfast menu and settled on a cinnamon bun and a side of fruit in attempt to balance my meal.

As I waited for my breakfast, I took in my surroundings, leopard clad booths filled with local residents, flocks of pink flamingoes in the form of statues and paintings, smiling portraits of Hampden hons, and enough baby blue and pink paint to cover the walls of a dozen nurseries. It looked great, but it was different than the other businesses I’d visited. It didn’t have the “gritty beauty” that Johnnise Smith had used to describe Hampden. It felt a little touristy. But at the same time, it was hard not to love the place. The staff was welcoming, the customers were friendly and the cinnamon bun tasted like a cloud of sugar—by the way, don’t bother with the fruit.

If this is the worst Hampden has to offer, I’m sold. The neighborhood is charming, whether you’re in the basement of a row house looking at sarcastic t-shirts or in a café that looks like it could be on the cover of Better Homes & Gardens. Hampden is a Mecca for friendly neighbors and local businesses. And it’s a Baltimore neighborhood you don’t want to miss.