Hampden is “Hipster Central for Baltimore”

As soon as you step into any restaurant or bar in Hampden, Baltimore, the first thing you will notice is the amount of beards.

Take Holy Frijoles for example.

One of the definitive markers of “hipsterdom,” the grizzly man beard growth adorns both the greeters at the door and the bartenders behind the counter, smiling back at you.

Local art hangs on the walls, affixed with price tags and contact information for the artists.

The animated bar discussion is focused on the performance of the  Olympic ice skaters. No one appears over 35 years old.

Frijoles, as the locals call it, is a microcosm of Hampden as a whole. This trendy weeknight spot for young professionals to hang out while drinking cheap Tecate and eating even cheaper tacos, works well to define Hampden as the Williamsburg, Brooklyn of Baltimore.

“Hampden is hipster central for Baltimore,” said Charlie Barton, 28, a regular Frijoles patron and Baltimore-based silk screen artist. Barton sits at the bar with two friends, who both attended York College in Pennsylvania with Barton before moving to Baltimore.

“Williamsburg is a grade above us,” said Mike Kearney, 26, although he is quick to add that Hampden has “a bit of a community.”

“You see a lot of the same people,” Kearney said. Frijoles is one of the many trendy restaurants along Hampden’s 36th Street, also known as “The Avenue.”

There is also Golden West with its live music and Corner BYOB, which invites patrons to bring their own alcohol to dinner. But aside from its bars and restaurants, Hampden also has plenty of independently run shops and art galleries.

Take an evening walk along The Avenue and you will see couples browsing window displays and meeting friends for further adventures.

The 2011 Neighborhood Health Profile, a health department fact sheet for Baltimore’s neighborhoods, notes that Hampden’s and its surrounding neighborhoods population of 18-44 year olds accounts for 47.9 percent of its total population. In comparison, Baltimore City’s total of 18-44 year olds is 41.3 percent.

Councilman Nick Mosby, whose District 7 incorporates parts of Hampden, said that area is attractive to “young progressives who want the city life.”

Mosby said the main reason so many young people are moving to the Hampden area is because of the stability and affordability of the housing market. He added that the proximity to I-83 and immediate access into downtown Baltimore serve as other attractive elements.

“Folks like to have that accessibility to that type of shopping and amenities in a safe and secure area,” the councilman said.

Dr. John Bullock, an assistant professor of political science at Towson University, said that the reason Hampden is seeing a community resurgence in relation to the surrounding neighbors is because of these amenities.

A former city planner in Washington D.C., Bullock also said that while Hampden’s neighbors may have the same type of housing stock, they may not have the “full complement of living in the neighborhood” that Hampden’s Avenue affords.

Baltimore is an “artist’s community,” he said, adding that many of Hampden’s shops have an “artistic bent” or have earned support from the arts community.

Graduates of local universities, including Towson, Hopkins, Loyola and MICA, are likely to invest in relatively inexpensive housing close to amenities, Bullock said.

“Once the area has a certain buzz about it, others will get in and want to be a part of it,” whether that’s developers or new tenants, he added.

Derek Menefee, 26, a medical lab scientist at the University of Maryland Medical Center, explained that he followed his friends to Baltimore from York College. A regular at Frijoles bar, Menefee sits with his college friend Barton and bandmate Kearney.

Menefee said that he had noticed a “cascade effect” of young people moving into the area and others following suit. One of the main draws to Hampden was the larger Baltimore music scene.

“It’s cool to see your friend’s bands in the area,” Menefee said. His and Kearney’s band “Solid Citizens” has played Holy Frijoles, Ottobar and the Charm City Art Space.

Barton said that while there are a lot of artists living in Hampden, he wasn’t sure if it has an “arts scene.” He has shown his Baltimore-set architectural-centric silk screen prints in Hampden’s Paradiso, a home furnishing store, and Gallery 788, Hampden’s newly opened art gallery.

Eduardo Rodriguez, Gallery 788’s owner, said that Hampden’s arts community is “pretty vibrant.” He added that while there are a variety of shops, bars and restaurants, such as Holy Frijoles, where artists can show their work, Gallery 788 is the only “proper gallery space.”

Since opening in September of last year, the space has been consistently booked with Baltimore-based artists. Rodriguez said that he is excited for lots of local artists to have the opportunity to show their work in a gallery space right on The Avenue.

Outside of the art spaces along The Avenue, Barton has also shown his prints at Hampden’s annual festivals Honfest and Hampdenfest.

“Honfest has stages, Hampdenfest has toilet races,”  Barton said.

He added that both festivals are opportunities to show how weird and eccentric Baltimore can be. That eccentricity is the result of years of cultural development within the community.

The character of Hampden’s community “has definitely blended over the years,” said Benn Ray, 45, president of the Hampden Village Merchants Association and owner of Atomic Books.

“The core blue collar working community that is Hampden has remained its core… but at the same time, you have a number of young artistic types that have moved into the neighborhood,” Ray said.

Ray said Hampden has an “organic attraction for artists,” because of the affordable housing, whereas the city and developers have used artists in areas such as Station North as a “form of gentrification.”

“It’s a neighborhood that focuses on the history and culture of it and that’s a consistent thing from the 1960s on to now,” Bullock said.

Baltimore is known for its depiction in the John Waters’ films, especially Hairspray, which show the “Hon”  working class community.

“Hon,” short for honey, is a colloquial term that grew out of constant usage around the 1950s, Bullock said. Other cultural identifiers, such as beehive hairdos, have come to be associated with Baltimore and Hampden as well.

These attractions, including the amenities, affordable housing, artistic community and culturally rich history, have brought a lot of attention to Hampden’s growth.

Bullock said that Baltimore’s neighborhoods have traditionally been drawn along lines of race and class and that historically Hampden has been a working class white neighborhood.

When it comes to development of an area residents may see “a lot of the attention going towards areas that are attracting the middle class, areas that are gentrifying,” Bullock said.

But Drew Skibitsky, 26, is doubtful that gentrification is taking place.

“It seems to me that things have always been like this, like white and kind of more middle class than other parts,” Skibitsky said. “I think this is the way it has been for a while, from what I’ve read and what I’ve heard.”

Skibitsky lives with his roommates in a home they found on Craigslist. Being among three roommates, each person pays $360 a month.

“The rent’s really cheap and the guy told us we could make as much noise as we wanted and nobody would care,” Skibitsky said.

Demographic data reflects that Hampden and surrounding neighborhoods have a 78.8 percent white population, compared to the 29.7 percent population in the city as a whole.

Bullock said that historically, cities have seen a trend of white flight away from the cities. Now in certain areas such as Hampden there is a trend of  white and black middle classes returning to the city, he added.

“What’s interesting is that it may appear to someone Hampden is this white hipster area or yuppie upper middle class, but there are those who want access to amenities,” Bullock said. “Regardless of race, it’s drawn along class lines.”

When it comes to opportunities for black population growth, Bullock said that he thinks there is opportunity. “I don’t think it’s going to become reflective of the demographics of the city as a whole,” he said.

As for the gentrification of businesses in the area, the Hampden Village Merchants Association has committed to keeping corporate franchises off of The Avenue, Benn Ray said.

“The role of the Merchant’s Association… is to look after the interests of the businesses here and try to find feasible businesses to bring it when possible,” Ray said.

Ray said that a Starbucks and Quizno’s attempted to move onto The Avenue a few years prior. After a number of “very public conversations” with the developers and property owners, the community turned against the developments.

“There is always that tendency for developers to want to get in on that too,”  Bullock said. “The one thing that [locals] take pride in is we don’t want any national chains here.”

Ray said that he is also a part of a group that is fighting to keep a Walmart franchise from moving into the Remington neighborhood to Hampden’s south.

“By and large when you educate people on some of the problems of these businesses, where they actually cause more problems to the local community than they actually help, they tend to come around and be supportive,” Ray said.

Bullock said that the local shops of The Avenue tended to have a strong following and that any intrusion from corporate franchises would likely “ruffle some feathers.”

That sense of community is palpable in a bar like Frijoles. Skibitsky has traveled all over the U.S. and he said that he was struck by how friendly everyone in Hampden is.

One night when sitting at the bar by himself, eating dollar tacos, Skibitsky said a man at the other end of the bar approached him.

“He goes, ‘I really like tacos,’ and I’m like, ‘Me too,’ ” Skibitsky said. “He’s like, ‘I ate twelve tacos one time.’ I go, ‘What? That’s amazing.’ ”

Within seconds, the two were chatting like old friends. Skibitsky said that he used to live in Washington, D.C. and felt that an interaction like that could have never taken place there.

“But Hampden and Baltimore in general are very warm places,” Skibitsky added. “You go out to a bar and you can talk with anyone.”

***

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