Was it the smell of pit beef on an open fire that drew thousands yesterday to the corner of Cross and Charles streets? Or was it something else?
What it was was the South of the Harbor Fun Fest, which proved once again that in Baltimore, there's nothing like a Sunday street bazaar in spring to bring out the Bermuda shorts crowd.
Live rock music thumped. Couples danced on a gas station's asphalt surface. Children threw pingpong balls at little glass bowls, and some actually took home prizes of goldfish. A vendor did a brisk business selling "What'll it be, hon?" T-shirts.
A group of older women swooned at the sight of professional wrestler Nickolai Volkoff, who signed autographs. "Where is he?" the ladies called out when they couldn't locate their favorite hunk.
Now that Oriole Park at Camden Yards is such a smash hit, South Baltimore-Federal Hill merchants decided it was time to promote the business side of their adjacent neighborhood in hopes of getting some of the dollars being spent in the area of the stadium.
"We wanted some recognition for our area. We wanted to tell people we have things to offer before and after the game," said Frieda Ulman, the owner of Movietime Video in the 1100 block of S. Charles St. and an organizer of the event.
The area around the Cross Street Market, where Baltimoreans have been shopping since the 1840s, seems a natural place for humanity to gather. But this neighborhood, despite its normal comfortable pace of commerce, has not promoted itself much.
Yesterday was a day of new allegiances. Some stall owners at the market opened for business, joining with the shops, bars and restaurants on the adjoining streets. You might think that it was a natural association, but that's not always the case in a tradition-bound neighborhood such as this.
Lengthy negotiations with city government got several blocks of Charles and Cross streets closed. Access to parking had to be worked out and entertainment signed up. What looked like a spontaneous happening actually took months to plan.
"I'm overwhelmed," said Sonny Morstein, the perspiring president of the South Baltimore-Federal Hill Marketplace Association, as he ran up and down the streets with a walkie-talkie.
With so much attention focused on the booths and beer trucks, it was possible to overlook the substantial gains that South Charles Street has made in the last decade. The street now has a stylish collection of restaurants and shops.
On sunny weekend afternoons, this area should need no extravagant promotions to keep it filled with shoppers and visitors.