Hampdenfest mixes tradition and weirdness

September 24, 2015

LEON SANTHAKUMAR/PHOTOGRAPHY EDITOR Held on W. 36th Street each year, Hampdenfest hosts a diverse selection of food and art vendors.


For one day a year, along a single avenue, Baltimore natives and Hopkins students alike can find funnel cake, fresh oysters, eclectic bands, a puppet show and a man in a huge straw hat riding a toilet mounted on wagon wheels. This one day of the year is known as Hampdenfest. This year, the festival was held on Saturday, Sept. 19 and proved to be truly a spectacular time.

Hampden is the neighborhood just west of Homewood campus, and it is usually described succinctly as “hipster,” although such a description might be limited in scope.

The neighborhood began to be populated by artists in the early 1990s who were attracted by the area’s studio and office space known as the Mill center. Hampden’s center of attention is, of course, The Avenue, or the area of W. 36th street which is dotted with coffee shops, brunch spots, clothing boutiques and record stores.

Walking along the avenue at this year’s Hampdenfest, attendees witnessed puppet shows surrounded by crowds of children, artisans touching up their handmade wares, tattooed parents with their toddlers in sundresses, musicians of all ages and couples enjoying the beautiful weather.

Everyone who spoke to The News-Letter mentioned the community spirit of the festival.

“Hampdenfest means community. Here you see a lot of residents showing up to enjoy the day,” Tanya Taylor, a volunteer for the event, said.

Marci Messick, also working at the information booth, said that it brings visitors into the Hampden community.

The festival itself grew out of a community event organized by the Hampden Village Merchants Association and the Hampden Community Council. However, Hampden has a long and storied history of festivals.

“The first big Hampden festival was the Golden Jubilee in 1938, which celebrated 50 years of Hampden. And so Hampdenfest is really a big tradition,” Nathan Dennies, an operations and communications associate at the Baltimore Architechure Foundation, said while giving out flyers for self-guided tours of Hampden architecture.

Much of this dedication to tradition shows through in the events at the festival. The toilet bowl races are perhaps the most interesting tradition at the festival and a prime example of how the community can not only continue old traditions, such as community festivals, but also create new ones.

Toilet racing goes back to the 2010 Hampdenfest when Steve Baker conceived the idea. According to a 2010 article in The Baltimore Sun entitled “Hampdenfest Racers Ride Toilets to Victory,” Baker had seen a similar competition in Philadelphia and thought it was “kind of Hampden.”

“It’s a way for people to show their creativity, and it’s an example of how freaking weird it is here,” 2015 toilet race contestant Jessie Hillman said after building a racer using only items from the Station North Library including a restroom appliance from the Library’s loading dock. She and her teammate Steve Iannelli were very happy with the results of their efforts.

Food also played a large part in the Hampdenfest festivities. Some notable meal options included a smoky chorizo burger that was perfectly paired with arugula and manchego cheese, and the tarragon-pesto-chicken crepe at Ma Petite Shoe was the epitome of a delicious brunch, especially when paired with the café’s lavender lemonade. It was also surprising to see two stands where burly-looking men were shucking fresh oysters.

One of the standout items at this year’s festival was a sweet-potato pound cake which tasted earthy and smoky, evoking the fall season that was only two days away.

The range of food offerings represented the range of nationalities and ethnicities of the neighborhood and the city. Of course the classic summer treats were also in high demand — the line outside the popular ice cream shop The Charmery stretched at least a quarter of the way down the block.

This year’s musical events also should not escape mention because they represented a diverse range of music genres.

“The committee really takes the time to plan out the acts and to make sure that there is something that will appeal to everyone,” Taylor said.

From a punk rock group wearing green monster masks to indie rock groups and bands of middle-aged men wearing khakis and polos, the range of acts was astounding. The karaoke competition also served as a reminder of how comfortable this community is with each other. Not all of the singers may have been professionals, but they were cheered on nonetheless.

Hopkins was a noticeable part of the community during Hampdenfest. Students and other members of the community mingled with the Hampden residents, buying huge plates of potato chips, falafels and hand-carved wooden stamps together.

Freshman Laura Nugent praised the “eclectic” feel of the neighborhood, the festival and all of its different events. There really was something for everyone, from the older attendees to the tired students to the children running around the streets.

“Any student who didn’t attend really missed out,” Nugent said.

But if you missed it don’t worry: Next year’s Hampdenfest is only a year away!

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