Hampdenfest, organized by the Hampden Village Merchants Association and the Hampden Community Council, is an annual local arts festival that stretches down and around West 36th Street.
Four blocks of vendors featured everything from overpriced vintage clothing (I saw one of the shops relabel their sweaters to twice the original price as the crowds picked up) to cheap finds, such as the piles of mismatched jewelry going for two dollars a piece that were piled outside of Strawberry Fields, an antique store in Hampden.
There were also copious art booths which, if you’re on a student’s budget and can barely afford to buy toothpaste, are still worth checking out in a future iteration of Hampdenfest. The artists are personable and the content is often surreal and fascinating.
There were numerous stages where local acts played loud, guitar-heavy music. Drowning out the music were voices from the crowd, the shouts of people calling to their friends from the shade and oil sizzling from stall after stall of delicious, sugar laden foods.
However, Hampdenfest would be just another ordinary street fair if it wasn’t for the star of the show, the crème de la crème, if you would. I am, of course, talking about the annual toilet race. This event was the reason I’d chosen to endure the nearly unbearable heat of mid-afternoon to attend Hampdenfest. I had also managed to drag my friends away from their work and the coolness and comfort of FFC dining.
At 3 p.m., we lined up along the blocked off street, all of us squatting or sitting on the gritty pavement under the sun with no water. We were joined by hundreds of other overheated and boisterous onlookers leaning over a trampled barrier, eager to watch a truly unique Baltimore spectacle.
When I first heard about the toilet race, I assumed I was going to witness some high-stakes, dare-devil antics. The reality far exceeded my expectations. There’s something utterly delightful about watching grown men and women, seated (or, in the case of the few, lying) over toilet bowls on wheels, push themselves and come soaring down a hill into a pile of straw bales.
Some of the racing contraptions were simple: One of the vehicles was essentially a metal frame with wheels assembled around the central icon, that great vestige of the water closet. Others were far more complicated to operate and required a great degree of pizzazz, as it were, to pull off. A personal favorite design was a large white casement designed to look like a race car with plastic rats racing up the front. The tuxedoed driver had donned a large Ratatouille head and waved to passing children during his haphazard steering down the course. The crowd, predictably, went wild. Another costume of note was that of a U.S.-themed gorilla who had a cauldron painted white upturned over their head like an astronaut helmet, with several other attendants helping them back up the hill. Equally delightful was a contender costumed as Furiosa from Mad Max, complete with black eye makeup to boot.
The toilet race was unrestrained in its imagination and childishness, something we could all make use of as midterms approach. It was also very indicative of what made Hampdenfest so wonderful: the slow and unofficial way the event unfolded, the creativity of the teams and the eagerness of the racers to return down to the bottom of the hill and help wheel their competitors (although I never fully understood what the objective was) back to the starting line was a perfect example of Baltimore’s unrestrained eccentricity and love of fun for the sake of fun.
Throughout the entire event, the chaos and drunken and food-gorged revelry that participants shared was a defining feature of the festival. It was also a powerful reminder of Baltimore’s spirit and vitality.
If you’re like me and have never set foot in Hampden during the day or are looking for a way to learn more about Baltimore as an artistically active city, then I highly recommend heading up the hill next September.