Hampdenfest celebrates local culture

By JESSE WU | September 13, 2018

On Sept. 9 the neighborhood of Hampden hosted Hampdenfest — an annual local celebration of food, music and art.

Despite a tremendous downpour, the streets were filled with people eager to check out the Baltimore attraction. 

To find out more about this awesome event, I spoke to Benn Ray, longtime resident of Hampden and owner of Atomic Books, a store located in the neighborhood.

The first time Ray attended Hampdenfest was in 2000, when there were only a few tables selling “cracked coffee mugs and used toothbrushes” and an “acoustic band on somebody’s porch just jamming.” It was a general disappointment for Ray, but he was inspired to revamp the festival into an event that people would be eager to partake in.

Inspired by the Baltimore-based SoWeBo Arts and Music Festival, Ray got involved in the planning and management of Hampdenfest in 2004. 

Dating back as early as the 1970s, Hampden has always been home to an annual fall festival. Throughout the late 1990s and the early 2000s, what we now call Hampdenfest was known as the Hampden Village Fall Arts Festival. 

“One of the first things I did was suggest we change the name to Hampdenfest, because ‘Hampden Village Fall Arts Festival’? Not catchy,” Ray said. 

Ray had friends who played in local bands, so his main role was booking performances for the festival. He took on this role at a time when no one even wanted to do the festival anymore. 

“They were going to scrap it,” he said.

According to Ray, the festival’s success varies year to year.

“Ninety-nine percent of [success] is based on the weather, [although] people are willing to come out and have fun, even if it’s pissing rain all of a sudden,” Ray said. 

Jen, a Hampden resident who has been involved in the planning of Hampdenfest for multiple years now, has observed that the festival today draws not only people from Hampden and other parts of Baltimore, but also fans from elsewhere. 

“I’ve seen posts from New York on our page asking, ‘What’s the date of the festival?’ and, ‘Who’s headlining?’; it’s great!” Jen said.

She also commented on how all kinds of people, young and old, attend and enjoy Hampdenfest. 

“I’m flattered by the fact that people want to come here and check this out, and I think if it were another neighborhood, it might not work because of how oddball our neighborhood is,” Jen said.

Ray commented on how the festival has continued to reflect Hampden’s changes throughout the years.

“I think this festival is a perfect representation of this neighborhood. Regardless of which direction Hampden is moving in terms of restaurants, gentrification, white versus blue collar, authenticity, etc., Hampdenfest is Hampden,” Ray said.

Ray favorite part of Hampdenfest is the music. 

“It’s the bands that get the ‘what the fuck?’ response from the audience. One year, there was a MICA [Maryland Institute College of Art] band that Dustin Wong used to be a part of,” Ray said. “They didn’t sing with lyrics; they sang with made up words, and their microphone was something fashioned from an old TV remote. I’m rocking out, and I look around. There are just locals and non-locals going like, ‘What the fuck?’” 

Ray recalled a year when Hampdenfest hosted Hampden Idol, noting some of the crazy costumes the contestants chose to wear. He reflected on the camaraderie of the occasion as a representation of the spirit of Hampdenfest. 

“Everybody had their arms around everybody else, regardless of whether it was old-school Hampden, new-school Hampden or Hampden you had beef with. Everyone was swaying around [and] singing,” Ray said. 

One of the most curious attractions of Hampdenfest is the annual toilet races, in which people build vehicles consisting of at least a toilet and wheels and race them down the hill they call Chestnut Avenue. This event, brought to you by sculpture artist Steve Baker, has been a tradition for nine years now. 

“I think his thinking was that we have this long hill here, so why don’t we race down it?” Ray said. “It just seems very iconic and tied in with the neighborhood. It always takes me by surprise how much appeal a couple of knuckleheads trying to race down a hill brings.”

In terms of food, Ekiben, Barbecue Chips and an array of other vendors had delicious offerings, and, to wash it down, Union Craft Brewing and The Brewer’s Art served beer. I ordered a pulled pork sandwich with horseradish from Barbecue Chips. The meat was delicious: smokey, juicy and tender.

Since this year’s festival was still this fun despite the pouring rain, you will definitely find me there next year, rain or shine.

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