Hampden Heritage

Archaeology, History, and Heritage in Central Baltimore

Friday, February 15, 2008

Dissertation Proposal, the good parts. Part 2

Here is the second in an occasional series abridging my dissertation proposal. I feel like I've said this a lot before - one begins to feel like a bit of a broken record - but I think it bears repeating. The point here is not to slam anyone in particular (well maybe 1 person in particular), but to shine some light on the process of gentrification, which has its good and bad points, but seems to me to be inherently unfair to a lot of people. As far as my dissertation proposal goes, this is section in which I build a context for my research and try to demonstrate why I think the project is necessary.
Enjoy! (or get mad. whatever).

Contemporary Hampden

Beginning in the 1980s, area developers began to renovate the old mill buildings as artist studios and offices. The influx of artists, according to Zukin (1995: 23), places a neighborhood squarely on the road to gentrification, and that gentrification has occurred with increasing intensity over the past several years. Housing prices are on the rise as affluent families (often referred to as “yuppies” by longtime residents) move into the area. A merchant’s association, with the aid of a large federal Main Streets grant, has altered the look and character of the city’s main shopping street, installing expensive boutiques, restaurants, and bars, meant to attract visitor consumers from elsewhere. An annual street festival known as “Honfest” purports to be a celebration of working-class women, but can be read alternatively as a minstrel show that lampoons all working class people (Gadsby 2006). A recent issue of National Geographic Traveler (Stables 2005:20), showcasing Hampden as an “up and coming neighborhood” attests to the increasing draw of places like this as tourist destinations. Recently the Hampden Village merchants association has paid to have the neighborhood listed as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places (City of Baltimore 2005).

Thus, Hampden has begun to transform into a caricature of itself. It has not reached the state of a fully consumption-based ”pleasure citadel” (Harvey 1991a: 237) such as Baltimore’s Inner Harbor (Harvey 1994: 247-248) or New York’s Times Square (Zukin 1995: 133-145). It is instead something between the “genuine article” of a working class neighborhood – working class people still, to an extent which remains largely undetermined, live and shop there – and a complete fake. The direction of development seems to be headed toward the latter however, and as developers and merchants march gentrification forward, a new symbolic economy based around the neighborhood’s working class image has begun to evolve. Events such as “Honfest,” and restaurants and shops on Hampden’s main street lampoon an imaginary blue-collar experience by disseminating inaccurate and cartoon-like images of working class men and women. They capitalize on the “kitsch” of working-class lives and homes and parody the styles of working class people in public performance. In this new Hampden, working class people are abstracted, sketched as cartoons, and relegated to the no-man’s land of Hampden’s working past. They are thus safe and unthreatening, but retain an illusion of authenticity. The commodification of Hampden’s working-class heritage cannot be seen as some kind of passive process. It is detrimental to the public political voice of working people and thus has material and political and economic consequences.

Zukin’s analysis of urban gentrification is based on the symbolic economy, in which agents of gentrification and commerce in American cities rely on “culture” and “style”, including art, heritage and history, to create urban spaces where citizens can consume commodities and businesspeople can conduct their business (Zukin 1995:13). This has meant the transformation of public places such as parks and streets into public-private places. In turn, the democratic processes that formerly governed the management of such places has been co-opted by private interests, and that the voices of developers, businesspeople, and other elites are privileged over those of most citizens. Additionally, elites, under the auspices of the historic preservation movement, have taken control of the histories of those transformed places, and used those histories as tools to further gentrification (Zukin 1995:124).

History and heritage, then, become no small problem for people in Hampden. As Zukin (1995: 124-5) notes, historic designations can raise the cost of living in a neighborhood dramatically. University of Texas anthropologist John Hartigan (2000) has written about the propensity of working class whites to regard history in terms of people and events in the past, while middle class whites tend to regard it as being related to material culture, particularly houses. In the second formulation, houses are of course also imbued with elevated monetary value because of their possession of (any) history. Thus what was once particular history – the history of working class struggle, or alternately of neighborhood unity– is transformed into a generic kind of history that is assumed to exist in old houses. Places become worth something not because they are associated with a particular person or event, but because they have “something about them,” “character” or “style” that speaks to the aesthetic sensibilities of middle class gentrifiers.

Most importantly, history of this kind can be marketed, as in the case of the multi-million dollar Clipper Mill redevelopment in the nearby neighborhood of Woodberry. Here, developers have explicitly used the heritage of a nineteenth century foundry as a selling point for their new luxury condominiums:

In 1853, a modest machine plant was born on Woodberry Road, just north of a nameless branch of the Jones Falls at the foot of Tempest Hill. The new plant, coined Union Machine Shops, housed Poole & Hunt's general offices, an iron foundry, erecting and pattern shops, a melting house and stables. Instantly it became the backbone of the Woodberry/Hamden community, employing thousands of men as it grew to become the country's largest machine manufacturing plants.

Today, Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, Inc. is redeveloping Clipper Mill and the surrounding area, including the beloved Woodberry Forest. Their aim is to create a new urban corporate campus and upscale residential community (Streuyver Brothers, Eccles and Rouse 2005).


This kind of marketing simultaneously elides the role of working people in the creation of the neighborhood now being gentrified and hijacks their history as a history of place over people. People who live in surrounding neighborhoods – people with a stake in how redevelopment goes, are left out of the process.

The work performed in preparation for this dissertation has been done under the auspices of the Hampden Community Archaeology Project. The goal of our project is to increase awareness of the historical agency of the working class, particularly with regard to its role in the development of the political and social institutions of the neighborhood. The project is self-consciously activist, advocating for democratic participation in real estate development and other private sector incursions into the public sphere.


Gadsby, D. A.
2006 Remembering and Forgetting Baltimore’s Industrial Heritage: Archaeology, History and Memory . In American Anthropological Association, San Jose, CA.

Harvey, D.
1994 A View from Federal Hill. In The Baltimore Book, pp. 227-250. Temple University Press, Philadelphia.

Stables, E.
2005 [Neighborhood Watch] Hampden Baltimore, MD. National Geographic Explorer 22(3):20.

Zukin, S.
1995 The Culture of Cities. Blackwell, Malden Massachusets.

2 Comments:

Anonymous westside said...

I think you are somewhat overstating your case here on a couple of points...

First, I'm not sure rising home prices and increased cost of living are the main factors that drive working class people out when gentrification occurs in their neighborhood.

A large part of my family is originally from South Baltimore (or what has recently been rebranded as "Federal Hill" despite being several blocks away from the hill). Growing up in the 1980's, I saw the neighborhood change dramatically from working class to upper middle class.

My working class family members and their neighbors were all too happy to be offered amounts for their homes they thought were kings' ransoms for houses they had come to regard as essentially worthless. They were thrilled to take those windfalls and go buy split levels with quarter acre lots in the county. They weren't driven out - they capitalized on the opportunity gentrification gave them to go live out their dreams.

You're critical of gentrifiers for capitalizing on the images and history of the working class, but you don't level any criticism at the working class people who let their history and images be so quickly commodified and sold out from under them. In the long run, my family members would have probably been better off, at least financially, if they had stayed in Federal Hill. A lot of working class people in Hampden could learn from this experience - stay put and don't look at your home as an ATM machine.

The second thing I have somewhat of an issue with is the assertion that:

restaurants and shops on Hampden’s main street lampoon an imaginary blue-collar experience by disseminating inaccurate and cartoon-like images of working class men and women. They capitalize on the “kitsch” of working-class lives and homes and parody the styles of working class people in public performance....

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I can think of only one restaurant (we all know which one this is), one or two bars, and a handful of other businesses in Hampden that really do this, none of which are frequented by people who actually live in the neighborhood.

5:38 PM  
Blogger colddoggy said...

Stumbled upon your site as I was looking at what people are doing for dissertation proposals (writing one in art history). Your dissertation sounds compelling and don't water down your thesis in order to please "westside" or others.

3:09 PM  

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