I am neither proud nor ashamed of it, but I am a Hampdenite. My grandfather saw to that when he started schlepping groceries on Ash and 36th back in 1929, and we've been living or toiling here ever since. So I can confidently say, with all the love and authority of a long-time insider, that it's a weird old place.
I knew that by the time I was 5 years old.
Early one summer morning that year, my father and I were traveling east on 41st Street when we witnessed an elderly man wearing a sleeveless undershirt, short pants and black socks vacuuming his front lawn with a Hoover upright.
"Did you see that?" my wide-eyed father asked me, "or was I hallucinating?"
I nodded. He'd seen it, all right.
"Only in Hampden," he muttered.
Since then, I have probably seen a million kooky things in the quirky neighborhood, but I have to admit that what I read about Hampden in The Sun recently really takes the cake.
It seems that some business owners are begging the City Council to step in and require approval before any chain businesses, such as The Gap, Starbucks and Barnes & Noble, can pay green money to move in. They claim to be doing this to protect the local "flavor" of the community.
Too bad Hampden wasn't zoned baloney-free before all this hostility to free enterprise came up.
Of course, they aren't thinking of the community. No, they are brutally attacking the financial freedom of their neighbors and pistol-whipping common sense for good measure. All this to stave off fair competition and to keep the cost of their leases artificially low. They're selling "community" like La Cosa Nostra sells "protection."
The Hampden boomers complain that the presence of chain businesses suburbanizes the city neighborhood. But, in reality, they are trying to turn Hampden into a shopping mall with exclusivity rights for themselves. If you run a bookstore that charges premium prices for limited-interest titles, you don't want a Barnes & Noble next door. If you are overpricing egg salad sandwiches, you don't want a T.G.I. Friday's muscling in on your action.
The local zest so often spoken of in Hampden is really just the marketing creation of a handful of retailers who display the locals as a kind of zoological exhibit. The HonFest, thrown on 36th Street every year, is the grotesque and nervy wellspring of all this, busing in outside nitwits to dress down in beehives.
The most hilarious aspect of this is the preposterous notion that big retailers are clamoring to get into Hampden. Has someone rolled up the Jones Falls and replaced it with the River Seine?
In fact, the community, as it's currently configured, offers many obstacles to that kind of investment, including insufficient parking, dubious sanitation, pervasive panhandling, homelessness and petty crime. These circumstances are better suited to two of the neighborhood's more successful current enterprises: illicit drug trafficking and prostitution.
If, miraculously, Hampden were chosen for investment by chain retailers, those primed to benefit most would be the people who deserve it most. Existing homeowners would see values rise and commercial real estate owners would realize a maximum return on their investments.
Of course, no one would benefit more from chain retailers moving to Hampden than Baltimore, which has lacked a signature retail district since the demise of Howard Street more than 30 years ago. The jobs and taxes created by a retail revival, especially in a neighborhood convenient to the wealthiest suburbs, would benefit every citizen.
Anyway, if the worst fears of the "quirky" retailers who are pushing the proposed legislation come to pass, and they are priced out of the neighborhood, what then? They can always hijack another part of the city. Then we Hampdenites, flush with our new wealth, could bus ourselves in and dress up like them. Maybe we'll call it the "HasBeenFest."
Jack Gilden is a Hampden businessman. His e-mail is email@example.com.
Columnist Steve Chapman will appear only on Wednesdays until early March.