"Baltimore could drop off the face of the Earth and Hampden wouldn't notice or probably care," Vincent Peranio, a film production designer, said with a laugh.
The city has many neighborhoods but few are as self-contained or idiosyncratic as Hampden, a rowhouse enclave nestled in a V-shaped area bordered by Wyman Park, the Jones Falls Expressway and 40th Street. "It has lots of character," added Peranio, who did the production design on "Pecker," the John Waters film set in Hampden.
One of the few neighborhoods left in Baltimore where residents' sentences end with the word, "Hon," the unusual is commonplace in Hampden; a woman in a white wedding gown waiting in line at the 7-Eleven to buy a bag of ice doesn't raise an eyebrow.
"No other section of the city gets so excited about holidays," said Peranio. Hampden's famous for the Miracle on 34th Street, its amazing Christmas light display, but Peranio said the enthusiasm runs to other holidays as well. "There were so many Halloween displays up, we had a hard time filming," he said.
Hampden is more a state of mind than a neighborhood. It may not be the most affluent, but the community has some of the healthiest traits a neighborhood can have.
And Hampden is changing. Young professionals, students and artists have discovered Hampden in the last 10 years and have made it their home.
"A more successful, more educated type has come in," said Harry Burnham, a resident of the area for 45 years. First labeled as outsiders and viewed with suspicion, the newcomers are now seen as an important addition to the old neighborhood, buying houses and renovating them. Even the word diversity has crept into a description of Hampden lately. "Asians, South Americans and African-Americans have moved to Hampden," said Dennis
Byrne, former president of the homeowners association in Wyman Park, a neighborhood that abuts Hampden.
Stuart Rehr, an architect and partner for George Vaeth Associates in Columbia is typical of the new residents Burnham described. Rehr purchased a house on Union Avenue in 1996 and has been renovating it, even updating it with central air conditioning.
"I like [the area] because it's safe, incredibly affordable," said Rehr, who also enjoys going to the Rotunda shopping center.
Buyers such as Rehr are continuing to move into the community.
"The future's fantastic for Hampden," said Bill McGruder, an agent for the Roland Park office of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA. "The homes are affordable, from $40,000 to $80,000, and the location is convenient to everything."
McGruder said the area is ripe for first-time homebuyers who often take advantage of FHA and state programs offering low mortgage rates as well as the city's Settlement Expense Loan Program that allows buyers to wrap their settlement costs into a loan.
Staff and academics from the nearby Johns Hopkins Homewood campus have bought into the neighborhood using the city's Live Where You Work program, in which money is contributed toward the purchase price.
One of the most positive changes Burnham has seen in his 45 years is how the influx of newcomers has changed Hampden's shopping district on West 36th Street. Most of the old stores such as Hankins clothing store are gone, but their place has been taken by new restaurants, galleries and shops.
Carol Randrup, owner of Mud and Metal, a store that sells sculpture and crafts, has been on 36th Street for four years. "I love it here; the response to the business has been amazing," said Randrup, who added that the street draws people who have tired of mundane malls and want something different.
Joe Leatherman of Fat Elvis, an antiques and collectible store, agrees: "They're malled out."
On weekends, lines of non-Hampdenites are found outside restaurants such as Holy Frijoles and Cafe Hon.
"The variety makes it village-like," remarked Leatherman. He used to be located on Antique Row on Howard Street and prefers the mix of uses on 36th Street that creates foot traffic, something on which his store depends.
The generational quality of Hampden is exemplified by Burnham's family. His daughter and her family live in the rowhouse next to him and his son's family lives on the other side.
Burnham lived on a farm in Lutherville in the 1950s, but moved to Hampden to work at the mills in Woodberry and the Hunt and Poole Foundry.
Name dates to 1865
Hampden's history is rich. Starting in the 1830s, cotton mills began operating along the Jones Falls. The company housing built in 1839 for these early workers still stands on Stone Hill on Pacific and Chestnut streets.
It wasn't until 1865 that the name Hampden -- in honor of an Englishman who opposed taxes levied by Charles I -- was given to the small village that had grown up along the mills.