Will success spoil Hampden? Well, what do you mean by success? And spoil? And what, for that matter, do you mean by Hampden?
A group of merchants that calls itself Independent Hampden wants a city ordinance that would deter (but not bar) chain stores from locating on The Avenue, otherwise known as 36th Street. They argue that the commercial spine of their North Baltimore neighborhood has become a little urban gem, attracting people from all over to take advantage of the accumulation of eclectic restaurants and cafM-is, antique stores, book shops, clothing and jewelry boutiques and emporia of assorted objets. All of this happened, they say, because of the vision and sweat and tears of the pioneering merchants who have transformed the street, and now they don't want to get shoved aside by heavily branded retail chains that will feed off their funky appeal until the inevitable rent increases drive the last funky independent out of Hampden.
Their argument has a great deal going for it, but there are the inevitable complications. Some people living in Hampden flat out don't like what has become of The Avenue. Allen Hicks, president of the Hampden Community Council, says some of his members resent the annual HonFest because they think it's a denigration of the blue-collar people who made Hampden what it is. The whole "quirky" thing drives some longtime residents up a wall. They long for the old 36th Street, where you could buy a pair of socks at the five-and-dime - though that world was gone long before the newcomers arrived, and if any chain ever moves to The Avenue in the years to come, it's not going to be Woolworth's.
Property owners, understandably, aren't altogether pleased with the idea of being told whom they can rent to. Why, they ask, should the members of Independent Hampden be allowed to declare that the street is now perfect and it's time to raise the drawbridge? Should merchants be allowed to choose their competitors? No one will be doing Hampden any favors by encasing it in amber.
The good news is that no chains are currently trying to move onto The Avenue. Bob Geis, who is developing Hampden Hall, was talking to a sub shop, but nothing came of it. He opposes the chain store restriction - but he also says he's trying to keep chain stores out of his commercial spaces, because he recognizes the appeal of the independents.
The even better news is that, with a grant from the Baltimore Community Foundation, Hampden has taken this issue as a prod to launch a "revisioning" for the neighborhood that will allow merchant, resident and landlord alike to weigh in. Suggestions are due by March. "Who defines the character?" asks Mr. Hicks. "And what is that character?" Speak up, Hampden - your future's at stake.