Back before there was a Harborplace, before the National Aquarium, Port Discovery and luxury hotels, downtown Baltimore was hardly a tourist destination.
Nearly three decades ago, Rash Field was the largest attraction downtown. Except for the football and baseball games played at Memorial Stadium, most of the excitement in the city went on in the various neighborhoods.
That was until then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer decided that he needed a way to bring more visitors to Baltimore, and that the best place to send them was downtown. So, he talked organizers of the city's popular ethnic festivals into moving their parties from neighborhoods to downtown. And Baltimore's Showcase of Nations was born.
Tourists came by the busload from surrounding counties and even outside the state. They drank German beer, ate Polish sausage and danced Irish jigs.
There were Italian and Jewish festivals, Greek and African- American gatherings.
With the onset of commercial development downtown, many of the festivals moved back to their neighborhoods.
Some festivals later moved out to the counties. Others quietly faded away because of a lack of volunteers.
But the Showcase of Nations lives on. Bill Gilmore, executive director of Baltimore's Office of Promotion and the Arts, says the showcase has highlighted 10 to 12 festivals for about a decade.
This year's showcase includes some of the founding festivals, as well as recent newcomers like the International Festival and the Korean Festival.
As it has since the beginning, the showcase highlights only one festival per ethnic group.
The events take place at locations throughout the city, on weekends from late spring through the summer.
Showcase festivals receive promotional help from Gilmore's office. "[The festivals] are a great marketing opportunity to showcase the neighborhood and the city," Gilmore says.
Following is a guide to this year's 10 festivals.
Asked to describe the city's annual Polish Festival, chairwoman Barbara Ulsch says proudly, "We got everything Polish," and she emphasizes the word "everything." Ulsch, a volunteer with the festival for 28 of its 29 years, adds that she loves every minute of the three-day extravaganza.
Part introduction to Polish culture for Baltimore's non-Polish residents and part family reunion for the region's Polish community, the festival offers music, food and imported crafts.
There will be lots of Polish sausage, pierogis and galumpke, a meat-stuffed cabbage roll topped with tomato sauce. Those of legal age can wash their meal down with Polish vodka or Polish beer.
This year's headline act is Baltimore's own Ronnie Dove, who'll taking the stage at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Dove isn't of Polish descent "but he married a Polish woman and he [once lived in] Canton, a Polish neighborhood," Ulsch says.
Polka bands and Polish folk music ensembles will be featured as well.
The Polish Festival takes place 4 p.m.-10 p.m. tomorrow, noon-10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Patterson Park, Linwood and Eastern avenues (near the Pulaski Monument). $3 Friday for ages 12 and up, $4 Saturday and Sunday for ages 12 and up, under 12 free all three days. Call 410-285-6663 or 410-879-6336.
St. Nicholas Greek Folk Festival
St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church - an active parish of 850 families with a thriving Greek-language school - is the jewel of Baltimore's Greektown.
And the church's annual festival is the social event of the season for the volunteers who organize it, the businesses who support it and many of the people who attend.
The festival, one of the early Showcase of Nations events, was moved from downtown back to Greektown in the late 1970s.
"Being here at home lets us showcase the neighborhood," says Rev. Manuel Burdusi, pastor of St. Nicholas.
This year's festival will offer twice the space of previous gatherings, thanks to land the church acquired last year, Burdusi said.
Visitors can take a self-guided tour of the church, sit down for a travelogue-style slide show of the Greek isles, and watch demonstrations of Greek cooking.
Food for sale includes chicken souvlaki, spanakopitas (spinach pies) and grilled octopus, as well as a variety of Greek pastries.
The church's youth group and the parent-teacher association of the Greek-language school will organize games and other activities for children.
Don't miss the original theatrical production staged Friday and Saturday evenings. Previous themes have included Greek mythology and a Greek wedding. Music and dancing begin after each show.
And don't be surprised to meet Burdusi, known throughout the community as Father Manuel. "As pastor, I try to meet as many people as I can," he says.
The St. Nicholas Greek Folk Festival takes place 11 a.m.-11 p.m. June 7-9. St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, 520 S. Ponca St. Free. Call 410-633-5020.
African-American Heritage Festival