Hampden Heritage

Archaeology, History, and Heritage in Central Baltimore

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Bob's dissertation, Chapter 1 Part 2


It was a typical hot and muggy June day for Baltimore, but the "Avenue" was packed with thousands of tourists who had come to witness an event that had come to symbolize Baltimore's working-class heritage: HonFest. George and Thelma didn't use to mind HonFest so much when it was just one day on a Saturday, even if the "Best Hon" competition was a bit offensive to their friends and neighbors. Now that it had been expanded to two days, however, they were irritated--not so much because of the street festival itself, but rather because of the lack of respect that the event organizers had shown for the local community. Denise Whiting, owner of the Café Hon and the brains (and money) behind HonFest, had promised that the festivities would not interfere with church services on Sunday morning. Yet here George and Thelma were, sitting in the sanctuary unable to hear the minister's sermon clearly because of the festival music blaring outside.

Thelma's mind began to wander. She thought back to her youth, when Hampden was a different place. There had always been community conflicts, she knew, but when she was younger it seemed that at least everyone respected everyone else as part of the same community. Now, though, things were different. Ever since younger families and single professionals had begun moving into the neighborhood, it seemed that the newcomers had no respect for the older community. The Avenue had once been the place where everyone gathered to hang out, to shop, to see and be seen. Now, however, the Avenue was increasingly becoming the province of the rich yuppies, people who had the time and the money to shop at stores with names like "Atomic Pop" and "Mud and Metal." For Thelma and George, there just wasn't anything left on the Avenue worth doing or seeing.

The community history outlined in the preceding sketches belongs to Hampden-Woodberry, a traditionally white, working-class community in central Baltimore, Maryland. The trajectory that I describe—from mill village to deindustrializing community to economically devastated neighborhood to revitalized, gentrified community—closely matches the dominant narrative reproduced by a number of local historians, an underlying set of ideas about local history and experience that, until the mid-1990s, profoundly shaped the contours and boundaries of community identity in Hampden-Woodberry. Psychological anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere has labeled such narrative structures "myth-models," a term that I will borrow here (Obeyesekere 1991:10). In fact, there are several variations of the Hampden-Woodberry myth-model, but they all share the same broad outlines. Indeed, this myth-model (or portions of it) is still utilized by some local residents for culturally strategic purposes. The recent gentrification and revitalization of Hampden in particular has lead to a tendentious situation in which the long-time working-class residents of the neighborhood have withdrawn almost entirely from the public sphere. Nevertheless, local identity and the values of community are still very much fought over by the two communities that now inhabit the neighborhood. This dissertation is an exploration of the various manifestations of this struggle from the 1870s to the present.


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Dissertation Proposal

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