Hampden in throes of change

Old-timers and newcomers agree they don't want gentrification to dilute the neighborhood's appeal.

August 09, 2005|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,SUN STAFF

By 10 a.m. John Barr, the de facto mayor of 36th Street, is tottering along "The Avenue," the heart of Hampden's shopping area.

He walks past a Bikram yoga studio, one of the latest additions to this North Baltimore neighborhood's cluster of squat storefronts.

And past the Salvation Army thrift store, where a sign blaming the neighborhood's "gentrification" for its closure screams out from a shuttered storefront.

It is an odd jumble - where old-school meets hip - and a testament to the gradual transformation of a traditionally working-class and insular neighborhood experiencing an influx of newcomers and a real estate boom with no end in sight.

Like the city's other blue-collar neighborhoods awash in changes, Hampden is adjusting to the young professionals and artists moving in, its stores and restaurants increasingly reflecting the tastes of a new palate.

Its challenge has become almost cliche, but it is real for residents such as Barr, who at 71 strolls up and down The Avenue every day, watching the changes.

"I ain't moving," said Barr, who has lived here since the 1970s. "Things have changed. Some of them I like. Some of them I don't."

One change he does not like is the imminent closure of the Hampden Bargain Center, better known as "Sandy's." Here, locals come to buy a dozen worms for fish bait, at $2.25, and the decorative swords stocked for collectors. Barr comes for the conversation.

"Hello, Mr. Barr," says Sandy Piper, 41, second-generation owner of the store, as Barr meanders in. "He's been scouting places for me" to relocate to, she says.

Time running out

Piper's modest business is set to close before year's end, pushed out by what she says will be an exorbitant rent increase after the space is renovated. Sandy's is part general store, part gathering place. In comes Louis Longest, 65, who will spend a good part of the afternoon here.

"My business isn't a tourist attraction, it's a Hampden store," said Piper. "Every kid in Hampden comes in my store. People that's lived here for the last 20 years come to my store. ... I know everybody. ... Everything is changing. It almost reminds me of Fells Point or Canton. Everything's high-end."

Across the street at David's Furniture, Sue Lamp, who was born and reared in Hampden, bemoans the closure of the Salvation Army thrift store.

Lamp, 65, can only marvel that young people with money to burn want to live here.

"I don't like it," she said. "I used to say I would never leave Hampden. But now I would."

Real estate agents say house prices have doubled in Hampden, with most rowhouses selling for more than $200,000. And luxury apartments are on the horizon.

A proposed 300- to 500-unit complex at the nearby Rotunda shopping plaza drew 200 residents to a town meeting recently, the word "yuppie" thrown around to the snickers of some residents.

"The market's just kind of nuts there," said Melvin Knight, 56, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker in Roland Park. He said the least-expensive listing was a $145,000 gutted rowhouse.

Allen Hicks, 52, president of the Hampden Community Council, says he is satisfied with the new businesses and his new and mostly young neighbors on Poole Street.

"I don't see any of it being bad," he said. "We have massage therapy. Yoga. Cards. Food. And it's safe. We support development as long as it's in the fabric of the community."

But Hicks does worry that Hampden could become another Federal Hill, Canton or Fells Point, a fear that many in the neighborhood share.

`Luxury people'

At a recent meeting overseen by Hicks, hundreds of residents voiced concerns about the luxury apartment development slated to rise from the Rotunda shopping center.

"Where's all these luxury people coming from?" hollered one woman. "With the prices of housing going up sky-high and taxes going up, now when this goes up, how much is this going to affect us? This is happening way too quickly."

For many years, Hampden was virtually all white and hostile to integration. So, it is no surprise that some residents are resisting the new newcomers whose main difference is their income - not their skin color.

"For all the grief about intolerance and the bad rap Hampden's got ... no neighborhood likes to feel infiltrated," said Sandie Castle, 50, adding that there is as much hostility toward the newcomers as there was against "people of different backgrounds."

John Cerniak is one of the newcomers.

He is 26 and moved to Hampden three years ago after getting a job at the bank on 36th Street. He likes grabbing dinner or a drink after work at Frazier's or Cafe Hon. He likes walking to area businesses without worrying about driving.

But he also realizes that many of the businesses Hampden residents depended on have vanished, leaving kitschy gift and antiques stores.

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