HonFest revelers. (©Doug Miller/Flickr, Creative Commons)
Growing up in Hampden, Deb Falkenhan remembers her mother relied on a lot of Aqua Net hairspray and a terry cloth towel to keep her updo in place overnight. It was the 1960s, and the working-class enclave north of the Inner Harbor was chock-full of bakeries and corner stores. In 1968, her father opened his own shop, Falkenhan’s Hardware.
Fast-forward to today, and much remains the same. The area is still home to a tight-knit community of thriving, independently owned shops and restaurants that regularly turn up in “Best of Baltimore” lists. As to the hairdos that defy gravity? They come back in style once a year during the campy street party, HonFest, named for those beloved 1960s blue-collar gals, who greeted friends and strangers alike with the endearment “hon.”
Falkenhan’s Hardware is still around, too, sharing the neighborhood with trendy spots like Doubledutch clothing boutique, The Food Market and Spro Coffee. Long-timer Atomic Books offers an eclectic selection—and receives fan mail for native son John Waters, who shined a loving light on the one-time hard-scrabble neighborhood in his film “Pecker.” Throughout the years, the famous director, who’s still a Baltimore resident, has continued to promote his favorite haunts, including Southwest comfort-food eatery Golden West Café, Zissimos bar and spaceship-themed restaurant Rocket to Venus.
Most businesses are clustered along 36th Street, the main thoroughfare also known as “The Avenue,” though a growing crop is sprouting along Chestnut Street, where visitors find French restaurant Arômes, home goods and accessories shop In Watermelon Sugar and the studio of stained glass and metal artist Steve Baker, WhollyTerra.
Though Thrillist, Forbes and Redfin all recognize Hampden as one of the top neighborhoods in the country, fame hasn’t gone to its head. Hampden still retains a quirky charm and remains loyal to its blue-collar roots. Visitors can opt for cheap Natty Boh beer at Café Hon or a fancy cocktail at The Corner Charcuterie Bar/Corner BYOB, said David Alima, who opened The Charmery ice cream shop (featuring flavors like caramel spiked with Old Bay seasoning) on The Avenue in 2013 with his wife, Laura. “I don’t feel like the new is trying to push the old out,” he added.
“It’s like a little village,” said local food blogger Amy Langrehr, who bought a home in Hampden in 2000. “Everyone helps each other. It’s pretty common for established businesses to help new ones.”
The community’s most famous event may be HonFest, which draws visitors from all over each summer to see contestants in sky-high beehives and cat-eye glasses vying to be crowned “Bawlmer’s Best Hon.” Other celebrations add to the nabe’s fun-loving spirit, too. In the fall, Hampdenfest features food, live music and the ever-popular Toilet Bowl Race, where contestants see who can get their decked-out commode to the finish line first. When December rolls around, visitors flock to the Mayor’s Christmas Parade, along with the dazzling, over-the-top holiday light display known as Miracle on 34th Street.
“You have these monumental community events that take us through the year,” said Susannah Siger, owner of Ma Petite Shoe and Ma Petite Shoe Café. “You can’t help but be uplifted by the outpouring of creativity and energy.”
Rise to the Top
Hampden wasn’t always a thriving retail destination. In the 1980s, the neighborhood succumbed to the same fate as many others across the country, when shopping malls took business away from main streets, leaving empty storefronts in their wake.
Locals credit much of Hampden’s turnaround to Denise Whiting, who founded HonFest and opened Café Hon in 1992. (With a giant pink flamingo in front, a nod to John Waters, her restaurant is hard to miss.)
“She saw the potential that no one else saw,” Lou Catelli said. Sporting a man bun, short shorts and a torn T-shirt, Catelli, aka Will Bauer, is a local fixture who helps new businesses to open. “She came to a neighborhood that had a lot of issues and made it an institution.”
Business owners also credit a strong merchants association for preserving their independence. You won’t find chain stores here. “We’ve worked hard to prevent the sort of corporate franchise chain that you see elsewhere from happening to our main streets,” said Atomic Books owner and Hampden Village Merchants Association President Benn Ray. “We’ve been fortunate in that we’ve had this organic growth in the neighborhood.”
That same independent spirit led to the making of the 2016 Boys of Hampden wall calendar featuring Catelli, Alima, Corner Charcuterie Bar chef and owner Bernard Dehaene and other local men in sexy poses. (It sold for $20 at home and gift store Trohv, Corner Charcuterie Bar and K&S Auto. All proceeds went to the Hampden Family Center, which provides education and support to local residents.)
All that hard work is certainly paying off. Charmingly kooky, Hampden remains uniquely Baltimorean, even as it marches into the future. Perhaps Catelli describes the neighborhood best: “There’s no other place in the world like this.”