Saturday, February 12, 2011

More heritage, hon? Community history and gentrification in Baltimore

The process of gentrification is often linked with public history in varying ways. Urban planners and developers, for example, market neighborhoods through reference to their historic character, which can include anything from events that occurred in the far-distant past to interesting architecture. Yet, gentrification is often seen at odds with the goals of public history. Architecturally “uninteresting” buildings may be leveled, destroying the vernacular past, while a focus on a vague history can overshadow more contentious, complicated stories. Perhaps most troubling for public historians is the fact that gentrification is usually accompanied by demographic changes that often result in the loss of longstanding communities.

This process is clearly visible in the Hampden neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland. Once a predominantly white working-class area, in the last two decades it has undergone a significant population and cultural shift. Today, as in many gentrified places, it would be easier to take a bikram yoga class than to buy a hammer on the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare.

At the forefront of Hampden’s gentrification is the Café Hon restaurant, opened by Denise Whiting in 1992. The Café markets itself with the image of the Baltimore “Hon,” a 1950s-era white working-class woman from Baltimore best known for her over-the-top style and warm personality. In 1994, Whiting started a street festival, HonFest, to promote her restaurant under the cover of celebrating working women. The festival’s main event is the crowning of Baltimore’s Best Hon in a contest in which mainly professional women dress up in exaggerated versions of mid 20th century working-class style and speak in the local dialect called “Bawlmer.” According to the Baltimore Sun, Hon Fest may be the city’s most popular neighborhood festival, drawing approximately 50,000 people to the two-day event, suggesting the Hon’s significant place in constructing a tourist-friendly image for Hampden.

Popular as it is, HonFest mainly pays lip service to the history of working-class women in the neighborhood. Displaying many of the most egregious aspects of gentrification, especially the desire to control public space for the comfort of tourists and upscale professionals rather than residents, HonFest has also caused controversy. The use of heritage discourse at HonFest and the Hon’s connection with economic and demographic change in the community, suggested that public historians might have something to add to the debate. Dr. Denise Meringolo, who directs the public history program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and I discussed the possibility of using the Hon and Hampden as a community case study for a graduate class. This seemed an ideal opportunity for public history students who are learning the tools of historical research and how to work with diverse partners to produce historical representations that balance their needs with the historian’s professional authority, while also making visible the history of working-class women in the area. With funding from UMBC’s social entrepreneurship program, “Community-Based History: Hampden’s Hon Fest”, was offered for master’s students in public history. The class goal was to create a plan for an exhibit on working-class women’s history in Hampden to debut at HonFest, hopefully historicizing the Hon while raising questions about the transformation of Hampden.

Students began by immersing themselves in Hampden’s history. Luckily an earlier generation of public historians created the Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project in the late 70s. This series of oral history interviews of elderly Baltimoreans included a number for Hampden, giving students a starting point for understanding the neighborhood in the 20th century, which we supplemented with scholarly and popular histories of the area. Repeated throughout the interviews and the histories was the idea of Hampden as separate from “the rest of Baltimore” due to geography (it’s bordered by a park and Johns Hopkins University) and culture, as it was settled by Southern and Appalachian whites and has remained predominantly white even as Baltimore’s population has become majority African American, a significant factor in the neighborhood’s gentrification. Students, after taking a walking tour of Hampden and speaking with neighborhood representatives, felt that HonFest was a symptom of a larger issue over who “owns” the neighborhood. Perceived differences between newcomers and longtime residents (often expressed through cultural capital) were impeding possibilities for community engagement with the area’s history. HonFest is clearly a lightning rod for this issue. Residents dislike the festival, but don’t engage with the larger issues of demographic change, neighborhood history and controlling development that undergird it.

In a display of laudable initiative, students shifted the class project. Rather than historicizing the Hon, the class wanted to help build bridges among residents of Hampden and between Hampden and neighboring communities. A proposed bicycle path in the Baltimore Heritage Area also winds through Hampden, passing factories and worker housing. Literally and symbolically, this path represented an opportunity for connection. Given their time and resources, the class decided to design wayside markers that would connect contemporary Hampden to its working-class history.

By semester’s end, the class had created draft markers with the theme “Hampden has always been connected to the city of Baltimore.” This seemingly simple notion helps refute Hampden’s supposed isolation and has been incorporated more directly into the panels through the tagline “at home in Hampden,” which addresses gentrification by focusing on living in the neighborhood, rather than just visiting for HonFest or to shop on the increasingly upscale main thoroughfare. Using historic photos and quotes from the Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project, the markers focus on topics ranging from work in the textile mills that created the neighborhood to the role of community institutions like churches. By using subtle language, the panels gently approach issues of gentrification. With no community entity behind the project, this tactic was chosen to insure that the markers would not repel the varying factions in the neighborhood who would need to be wooed, a balancing act familiar to many public historians.

At the time of this writing, the students have presented the panels to the community council (the lack of a historical society has been a further stumbling block) and are hoping to have a meeting with the Merchants Association soon. The class was advised by a city council member that it was cost prohibitive to put the markers in public areas, as that would require paying annual fees. Instead, she suggested finding local businesses willing to have the markers on their buildings, effectively privatizing this public historical project. The community representatives’ reactions have been positive. However, as in many gentrifying neighborhoods, some of the most active people are the relative newcomers. It has proven much more difficult to “get” the input of longtime residents, many of whom feel disconnected from the area.

As the students were working on this project, Hampden erupted in controversy over ownership of “hon” and its relationship to the heritage of the neighborhood and Baltimore more widely. Denise Whiting let it be known that she holds several trademarks for the word “hon,” which, she claims are essential to protect her business interests. However, many others have recoiled at what they see as an attempt to control what is properly understood as part of Baltimore’s heritage. Protests have been held outside the Café, a Facebook page called “No One Owns HON, hon” has 3,109 fans (more than the Café itself), and a local man vows to test the trademark’s validity by selling coffee mugs with the word on it, giving these students’ project a currency unexpected at the start. While confronting HonFest directly may have been more a explicit strategy, their decision will hopefully open a space for discussion of issues around gentrification as well as the practical question of who public historians can work with to tell this complicated and contentious story.

~ Mary Rizzo

NOTE: The image above, supplied by the author, shows Heidi, Rita, and Nichole dressed as Hons for HonFest.