Seeing last night's “The Day the Earth Stood Cool” episode of “The simpsons” – in which Homer's cool neighbors from Portland, OR, transform Springfield into a Mecca of Hip – made me reflect about our own cool neighborhood of the moment, Hampden.
Don't get me wrong – I like Hampden. But today's super-hip Hampden and the Hampden I knew back in the 1990s almost seem like two different places. Back then, Hampden was still like Fells Point before it was completely overrun by developers and the nouveau rich. Hampden in the '90s was full of “real” working class people, dive bars and functional shops that hadn't yet been completely “discovered” or “repurposed” by yuppies, Millenials and the bohemian arts community. (Admittedly some of those “real” people and bars were downright scary!)
It had a Murphy‘s five-and-dime store for all your shopping needs, a 7-11 and Royal Farm subbing for coffee cafes, a video store that stocked porn and action films (and whose clerks had never heard of the “Criterion Collection”), and real hons cutting your hair that had never heard of “organic” shampoos. The only “recycling” took place at motorcycle repair shops. Across Falls Road, low-lifes could get blow-jobs from indigenous junkie hookers starting at $5. And the dirty old man who ran Sugar's Gym would pull his wallet out and show complete strangers naked pictures of his track-marked teenage “girlfriends.”
Now there seems to be a new trendy boutique popping up on The Avenue every other week selling organic wares, knitting gear, pricey t-shirts adorned with rats or tentacles, $15 hamburgers, and over-priced pre-packaged kitsch (as opposed to the “ironic” kitsch one used to find in places like Murphy's!). There are wine bars, liquor stores selling fancy microbrews alongside Natty Boh, and whole stores dedicated to pet accessories. The neighboring upscale Clipper Mill community is now starting to look like Federal Hill and boasts one of the area's most expensive restaurants in Woodberry Kitchen. Sidewalks that used to be filled with teenage girls pushing strollers are now filled with dog-walkers and joggers. And street parking spaces throughout The Avenue are now angled – perhaps the surest sign that the gentry have moved in.
That's why I enjoyed coming across this 1998 City Paper article by Michael Anft that anticipated the coming cultural divide between the native and the new Hampden and reminded me of its old, charmingly authentic haunts – like Showalter's, the restaurant/bar that became today's insanely popular Rocket to Venus.
— Tom Warner
Can Old Hampden Coexist with the New Avenue?
By Michael Anft (City Paper, 2/25/1998)
Cigarette smoke billows around pushed-together tables, and the accumulated roar of conversations drowns out a country song on a jukebox. A crew of 16 people downs plates of Old Bay–doused seafood and pints of beer. It's Wednesday, and that means it's Shrimp Night at Showalter's.
For the vanguard of the new Hampden — “the interlopers,” some jokingly call themselves — Shrimp Night at this watering hole at Chestnut Avenue and 34th Street is a can't-miss event, at which participants enthusiastically dish dirt while cleaning their plates. Besides the owners of Hampden's newer, more upscale establishments on West 36th Street — known provincially as “The Avenue” — a few slummers of sorts have become semiregulars at Shrimp Night over the past couple of years, lending the happening a hipster cachet.
Local film- and TV-casting legend Pat Moran and her unbelievably red head hit the scene on this night. On previous Wednesdays, Rebecca Hoffberger, American Visionary Arts Museum director and darling of the artistically dispossessed, has made the trip down from tony Greenspring Valley. (“I always tell her, ‘Rebecca, it's good to see you with Old Bay under your fingernails,'” says Michal Makarovich, co-owner of Gustafson's, an antiques, junque, and collectibles shop on The Avenue.) Tony Award–winning actor and baltimore native John Gloverhas made at least one cameo at Showalter's. Every now and then Bill Henry, an aide to City Council President Lawrence Bell, makes an appearance. Although Henry is black — which might mean trouble to many in lily-white Hampden — he's more than welcomed by the Shrimp Night crowd.
“You can see how things are changing in the neighborhood right here in this bar,” says Cheryl Wade, who bought in as a co-owner of New System Bakery on The Avenue last year and is a Shrimp Night regular. Newer Hampdenites, she says, “don't really care what you are — black or white, gay or straight. Plus, Gary [Showalter] has portabello mushrooms.”
Meanwhile, 12 blocks away — in an area on Hampden's fringe, known (sometimes derisively) as The Bottom — the Clipper Mill Lounge sits dark and quiet in the shadows of the old mill district and the hulking concrete supports of the Jones Falls Expressway. Trendy businesses have repopulated empty storefronts and spruced up crumbling facades on The Avenue a half-mile or so away, but three blocks to the south of the Clipper Mill Lounge's spot on Union Avenue there is a telling counterpoint. Many houses, some dating back nearly 200 years, sit boarded up, “with people still living in some of them,” says Wade, who at one point led a move to oust slum landlords from The Bottom. Burned-out hulks lend Baldwin Street the air of a war zone. Laundry hangs from lines connected to an Ash Street house with more broken windows than intact ones.
Continue reading “Uneasy Street” at Baltimore City Paper.