Hamming it up in Pigtown

Spotlight: Eight pigs are the star attractions at a new event in the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood.

September 15, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

In an impromptu pen on McHenry Street yesterday, eight small, nervous pigs lined up sardine-style, the unwitting mascots of Pigtown's determination to embrace its hard-knocks history and rally its collective pride.

They had traveled by trailer from their barn in Clarksburg to perform in the Running of the Pigs, part of Pigtown's first neighborhood festival. For a two-block stretch behind the B&O Railroad Museum, people lined up along metal barriers, as if expecting marathoners - or bulls - to thunder by.

Tom Hartsock, part-time farmer and full-time University of Maryland agriculture professor, gave last-minute instructions to several helpers. "I think they're gonna stay together as a group," he told them, "but we might have eight escapees. If they go under the fencing, don't grab 'em. Don't chase 'em. Just guide them back under."

Then, after community leaders snipped a pink plastic ribbon, the 3-month-old Yorkshire crossbreeds were off and ... walking. They ambled forward, trotting now and again, in an orderly parade of pig.

Children, some of whom wore paper snouts made from cupcake-pan liners, reached out to touch them. The pigs ignored them, but a few paused to investigate shoelaces, as well as foreign, citified smells.

Abruptly, with the finish line in sight, they all stopped. The terrain had changed from cobblestone to asphalt. Their practice runs in the barn had not prepared them for this. They lingered, sniffing the ground. They decided to move on. People cheered as they reached the hay and water at the victory pen.

In all, the running of the pigs was an unmitigated success. None escaped and none collapsed from heat. Hartsock was pleased. Pigs don't sweat, he explained, so walking was the correct gait. In about three months, he added, they'll be slaughtered.

The same fate awaited thousands of pigs unloaded off B&O trains in Pigtown throughout the first half of the 20th century and herded down Ostend Street to slaughterhouses in South Baltimore.

Jack Nethen, 76, remembers watching them as a kid. He and his friends would hide in his family's coal bin and pilfer a pig as it ran by. "We'd have good eating for a while," he said.

In those days, Pigtown was a stable, working-class neighborhood. His father had a neon-sign business and his mother worked at American Hammer and Piston Ring, which manufactured parts for military equipment. He left the neighborhood in 1944, when he went off to fight in World War II.

After the war, when defense workers left Pigtown, he said, "it all fell apart." Returning to the neighborhood from his home in Glen Burnie makes him a little sad, he said. Still, he sees improvements - fewer boarded-up houses, a spiffier park. "This is going to help," he said of the festival.

Wally Francis, 69, who lived in Pigtown for 67 years before recently moving to nearby Morrell Park, said he wouldn't have missed yesterday's festival for anything.

"You can take a guy out of Pigtown, but you can't take Pigtown out of the person," said Francis, who wore a fake pig snout for the occasion.

Pigtown community leaders are on a campaign to revitalize the neigh- borhood, and are hopeful the city will soon invest redevelopment dollars here. They don't want to gentrify, they insist: They want to stabilize. It's already happening, said Helen Keith, vice chairwoman of the Washington Village Neighborhood Planning Council. In the past five years, she has seen fewer drug dealers, prostitutes and loiterers.

The city officially discarded the name "Pigtown" years ago, replacing it with three districts called Washington Village, Ridgely's Delight and Barre Circle. Yesterday, one woman distributed fliers decrying the Pigtown Festival as an effort to keep "racist memories" alive. Pigtown, the flier argued, was named not for pigs, but for poor people said to live like pigs.

Sharon Decker, another planning council member, has heard these arguments before. "It's an historic name for an historic area," she said, a hint of defiance in her voice. "We have more positive than we have negative, but the negative tends to get out. That's what we're trying to change here."

Sun staff writer Jason Song contributed to this article.

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