Hampden's New Retailers Strive to Fit into City's Classic Blue-Collar Enclave

by Paul Cané

One Saturday morning in early January Dan Harvey placed a For Rent sign in the window of 3551 Chestnut Street. Meanwhile Terri Schiavone and her partner Jaime Kraft were visiting Tom Thompson's Coffee Mill next door. The two women had been seeking retail space in the area since deciding to open an Italian deli the previous year.
They toured Harvey's space, liked what they saw, and walked around the corner where Harvey and his wife were painting another property. Within seven days a lease was signed and S'Getti Gourmet had found a home in one of the hottest retail markets in the city.
This anecdote is typical of the stories of Hampden's revitalization. The cooperation between the neighboring businesses, the upscale nature of the enterprise, the quick turnaround on the lease, all are commonplace as an area undergoes revitalization, But there is an important difference: Schiavone and Kraft are Hampden residents who decided to start their business in their own neighborhood, as are the Harveys, and Joe Leatherman, owner of Fat Elvis, and Geoff Danek, co-owner of Holy Frijoles. In a movement that is rare in such a neighborhood, Hampden is rebuilding itself from within.
"We wanted to be a part of what's going on here," Kraft says, "But we also wanted to be a part of the community."
Four years ago the Hampden corridor, the strip of 36th Street between Beech Avenue and Falls Road that locals refer to simply as "The Avenue," was struggling. Spaces went vacant for months on end. Storefronts deteriorated. Drug use and prostitution were on the rise, and there was a general sense of depression in the neighborhood-all within an area that would seem ideally suited for new retail ventures. Hampden offered affordable rents for large, commercially zoned properties, and boasted very low crime rates. Add to this mix a location surrounded by stable, affluent neighborhoods such as Roland Park, Charles Village, and Guilford, and an influx of new retail ventures would seem almost inevitable.
Some of Hampden's retailers hold this view, but many others place the credit for Hampden's rebirth at the feet of the Hampden Village Merchants Association, and its president, Alice Ann Finnerty.
The Hampden Village Merchants Association was formed in 1993, with seven original members meeting in the back room of Finnerty's Turnover Shop. Their mission, as Finnerty puts it, was "to promote the positive, and build pride in Hampden."
Dan Harvey recalls, "The Merchants Association recognized that there was a core group of merchants who had the common goals of putting the word out, and of making new merchants feel welcome."
These goals are consistent with the charters of countless other merchants associations in neighborhoods around the country, but the leadership of the Hampden Village Merchants Association believed from the outset that the group had another, equally important obligation-to establish and develop cooperation between area merchants and the community as a whole.
For the most part, the question of credit for Hampden's revitalization is irrelevant; the most significant aspect of the role that the Merchants Association has played is as the bridge between a young, stylish group of retailers and one of the oldest blue collar neighborhoods in the city.
"We understand," Finnerty says, "that to bring business in we need community cooperation."
That cooperation is illustrated in the close ties between the Merchants Association and its non-business counterpart, the Hampden Community Council. Rick Arnold, president of the Community Council and a lifelong Hampden resident, describes the cooperation between the two groups. "There's a sense of togetherness," he says, a clear note of pride entering his voice. "We talk, attend meetings together, and we know if one needs help, the other is there."
While the success of this partnership is apparent in the ongoing revitalization of the neighborhood and in the tenfold increase in association membership, the challenge of maintaining the growth of Hampden remains. In some ways, this is the greater challenge to an association with such close ties to a community:
. In other words, can Hampden continue to grow and still be Hampden?
Two projects of the Merchants Association point to a desire to remain connected to the community. The first is the inclusion of Hampden in the Homewood Business Revitalization Project. This project involves members of the Hampden merchant community and student interns from the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies. Working closely with former Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer, a visiting fellow at the Institute, the interns meet weekly with merchants and other leaders from the neighborhood to discuss goals and strategies for a continuance of the Hampden revitalization.
Words like "goal" and "strategy" and names like Schaefer will often send community leaders running for the nearest editorial page, but the project's most influential members offer repeated assurances that the future of Hampden will remain solely in the hands of the community.
"Hopkins could be a real help [in Hampden]," says Schaefer, "Not in telling them what to do, but in helping them with the resources that they have."
Finnerty is even more reassuring. "They offer us advice. Just advice. We don't need to take it."
The second community-oriented project involving the Merchants Association is the Hampden Family Center, which offers a variety of services including job training, a parenting skills class, and a GED program. The center offers an after-school program of recreational, artistic, and educational activities for children in grades one through eight.
It would be typical, if not outright reflexive, to ascribe the creation of such an institution to some municipal initiative, some strategically placed bit of pork, but the truth of the matter is much more telling. The Merchants Association, the Community Council, and the Hampden Midtown Lodge of the Kiwanis Club joined together to form a group called the Hampden Coalition.
This Coalition then formed a partnership with the Junior League of Baltimore, which assisted in acquiring funding for the center, and, as if to underscore the commitment of the partners to the area, the facility was placed in a building which had remained vacant for twelve years. It is vital to understand that the project received no federal, state, or municipal funding; consequently there is no political interference in the operations of the center.
It is that fierce sense of identity, of self-sufficiency, that gives the revitalization of Hampden its unique energy. It also creates the unique problems that new merchants face as they migrate to Hampden. For nearly a century, Hampden was a self-sufficient mill town, with local shops meeting the commercial needs of the homogeneous, working-class residents.
Rick Arnold recalls, "In the forties and fifties we had everything we needed right here, food markets, shops for clothes, movie theaters. We walked everywhere."
As the stable blue-collar jobs dwindled, Hampden's economy suffered, but the sense of community remains. As the afternoon flood of schoolchildren flows down 36th Street, the crossing guards still scold the children by name, using the flattened long o's that distinguish the true Baltimore accent. Those mothers who choose to walk their kids home shout greetings across The Avenue, or send the kids into the market for a loaf of white bread while they wait outside, chatting with the other parents. It's noisy. It's genuine. It's probably as close to the mythological urban street scenes of Norman Rockwell as one is likely to find in today's Baltimore.
But another product of that past is isolation. The mistrust of outsiders that is taken for snobbishness in more affluent neighborhoods will sometimes strike the same visitor as disapproval in Hampden. The depletion of the local economy has combined with the reluctance of residents to leave Hampden to create a significant number of single-parent families, and a high number of students who do not finish high school. Drug and alcohol abuse remain higher than in many parts of the city. Never an ethnically diverse neighborhood, Hampden has a handful of shameful moments of racism in its past that still dominate the image that the neighborhood holds for many African-Americans.
So the new merchants are faced with the benefits of a stable community, but also the hazards of a somewhat insulated community. The new, upscale shops of Hampden, though well received, seem ill-suited to the needs of the community. A respected longtime local merchant says his older customers occasionally express frustration at the lack of a more conventional ladies' fashion shop, or a simple shoe store, and many in the community await the reappearance of the movie houses and bowling alleys that would, for them, complete the revitalization.
The changes to Hampden are more than the names on the leases. There is a generational shift occurring, and this creates another facet of the challenge facing the new retailers. Not only must such identifiably hip enterprises like Fat Elvis, Mud and Metal, and Holy Frijoles confront the problem of reassuring older residents that they are serious businesses, but the real estate agents in the area must work to keep the residential housing owner-occupied.
Dan Harvey, who assists the Community Council in areas of zoning and licensing, points out that if the retailers wish to maintain the character of the community as older members leave for nursing homes or pass away, the housing must stay single-family, owner-occupied. "We want to see home ownership not only stabilize, but even increase," he says.
The reactions of the merchants in Hampden to the special challenges of establishing a business in Hampden are as varied as the businesses themselves, but it's impossible to underestimate the enthusiasm that the ventures have for their new home. Some, most famously Café Hon, celebrate the essential Baltimore-ness of the neighborhood, while drawing customers from all around the state.
Mary Ellen Bronco, owner of The Pearl Gallery and another driving force in the shift to more upscale shops on 36th Street, takes a more pragmatic view. Noting that the very presence of certain types of ventures on The Avenue has already changed the flavor of Hampden, Bronco says, "The best we can do for the neighborhood is to succeed as businesses."
Tom Thompson, whose Coffee Mill has been in the area for over twenty years, stresses the need for innovation while acknowledging the strengths of the Hampden culture. "We need to keep the energy up. Like any single business we need to focus on goals and remain innovative," he says, "but you're never going to gentrify this neighborhood. You'll always have the distinct flavor of Hampden."
This is a constant refrain among Hampden's new merchants, the belief that no matter what happens along The Avenue the personality of Hampden will endure. Confronted with the dread image of a retail strip priced out of the range of the local residents, Dan Harvey chuckles, "Complete yuppification? It's not going to happen here, and we wouldn't want it anyhow."
Still, one cannot deny that the face of Hampden is changing, and this leaves those who monitor such changes searching for models within the city, models of what to strive for as well as what to avoid. With no waterfront, Hampden faces little threat of becoming a tourist trap or frat-boy watering hole. The stable resident population eliminates the possibility of a large scale buyout of the homes by young professionals and the resulting strip of Starbucks and Banana Republics. Mary Ellen Bronco likes the model of Federal Hill, the quiet, neighborhood-driven revitalization which has combined innovative restaurants, eclectic new ventures, and an invigoration of some of the more established shops that focus on the needs of community residents.
Models aside, Bronco, Finnerty, and other influential merchants agree that Hampden must, and inevitably will, chart its own course. Rick Arnold, possibly the one man most fit to gauge Hampden's new growth, likes to say that Hampden was, and is, another world. "And that's a positive thing," he adds, "That's one of the things that makes me proud."
Back in January, when Terri Schiavone and Jaime Kraft were looking at the space that will open in April as S'Getti Gourmet, something happened that shows just how special this growth of Hampden is. Two years earlier, when the two women had entered the same space, the owner of the shop had looked closely at Jaime.
"You look just like Bob Kraft," the woman said.
"That's my dad," Jaime replied.
And today, as Terri and Jaime move their own dream into the space of an earlier generation of entrepreneurs, Hampden moves into the future, fully aware of the sense of community and the hard-earned hope that it has earned over the generations.

Paul Cané, a native of Washington, DC, holds a master's degree in creative writing from the University of Michigan. While waiting for his big break as a writer, he bakes bread at Big Sky Bread Company, 509 West Cold Spring Lane.

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This story was published on March 5, 1997.