AFRAM brings out crowds with mix of ethnic, exotic New Mondawmin site is 'the perfect place'

August 02, 1998|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,SUN STAFF

With a move to what many consider a hub of Baltimore's black communities and commerce, the vendors and entertainers of AFRAM filled a parking lot at Mondawmin Mall in West Baltimore yesterday.

After its beginning 22 years ago, the three-day festival has come home in a sense, from the various parking lots near Camden Yards, where it had been held for the past several years, AFRAM director Lloyd C. Mitchner said yesterday.

"It's an ethnic festival and it's in an ethnic neighborhood," Mitchner said. "If I have anything to do with it, they will be back next year. This is the perfect place for AFRAM."

Since its founding in 1976 as part of the city's Showcase of Nations, the festival has been held at Dunbar High School, Hopkins Plaza, Rash Field, the stadium lot and other locations.

Scheduling problems with both Orioles and Ravens games this year drove organizers to look for a new venue, Mitchner said. The festival was not pushed out by city officials or by the neighborhoods around Camden Yards, as some vendors and festivalgoers have complained, he said.

Organizers searched for nearly eight months, and had already booked Druid Hill Park as the new location, when they met with managers at Mondawmin Mall several months ago and decided the 43-year-old shopping center was an ideal location, Mitchner said.

The deciding factor was the paved parking lot, which, in case of rain, would not turn into a field of mud, as the park might, he said. There were no worries about rain yesterday with temperatures in the 80s and low humidity.

Yesterday's festivities began with a parade, filled with community marching groups and drum corps, that wound from Carver Vo-Tech Senior High School through neighborhoods to the mall grounds.

The new mall location meant a short hop for vendor Robert Washington, who owns a balloon store and accessories shop in the mall.

"Now that it's here in Mondawmin, I feel that it's going to be one of the best AFRAMs in years," said Washington, who said he helped persuade vendors who were skeptical about the inner-city location to give it a try.

While a count of people attending AFRAM yesterday wasn't available, Mitchner said he expected the total to surpass last year's Saturday attendance, which was 22,000.

Making more room

Organizers limited the number of booths to 150 this year, down from 215 last year, to make sure that people had plenty of room.

April McMiller of West Baltimore noticed the change.

"Downtown was so congested, and the parking was awful," McMiller said in between browsing for jewelry and clothes. "Here you don't feel closed in."

Mame Astou Mbacke, also known as Sylvia Veasey, lives in Senegal but grew up near the mall and has been in the Baltimore-Washington area for several months to raise money for a school for poor children she runs in Senegal. For her, AFRAM is more than just a place to solicit donations.

"I'm looking for energy that keeps me moving," said Mbacke, draped in black and gold as she stopped passers-by. "It's so great because this is where I grew up and I've come back home, and I'm so happy to be received in my old neighborhood."

Hard-to-find items

But for loyal festivalgoers and die-hard shoppers, AFRAM's location is not as important as the unique mix of exotic and ethnic wares they say are hard to find anywhere else.

"I'm trying to find a hat with the top out so my locks can hang out," said Althea Thompson, fingering her dreadlocked hair.

C. Maria Stokes of West Baltimore sat down for a demonstration on how to wrap a black cotton scarf around her head just so, before buying the fabric decorated with an Egyptian symbol.

The 40-year-old office manager said she saves her money to buy clothing and gifts from black vendors at festivals, instead of shopping in traditional department stores.

"I get one-of-a-kind, and I wear it with pride," she said, heading off to find the next unusual buy.

The festival concludes today with gospel and R&B entertainment scheduled from 1: 30 p.m. to 9: 45 p.m. Admission is $5.

Pub Date: 8/02/98

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