Children cheered. Parents readied their cameras and camera phones. And the pigs, just moments from their scheduled race down the middle of Washington Boulevard in Pigtown, twitched their curlicue tails, sniffing the ground and nosing through their damp straw bedding.
With the excitement of the crowd building, farmer Bud Strohmer of Woodstock opened the gate for his 250-pound porkers and ... they're off?
Organizers of yesterday's fifth annual Pigtown Festival called this, their signature event, the Running of the Pigs. The attraction is meant to celebrate the history of the neighborhood, when pigs were unloaded at the B&O and Union rail yards and herded through the streets to the slaughterhouses of South Baltimore.
But the four swine in yesterday's event did no running.
They moseyed. They ambled. They occasionally came to a dead stop to sniff the outstretched hand of a child hanging over the garden fencing.
"This can't be the running, is it?" asked Regina Davis, 54, standing at the starting line as the pigs waddled down the street.
"This is the running," a man standing nearby confirmed. "It's symbolic."
To Jack Danna, manager of the Pigtown Main Street revitalization program and a festival organizer, the race, no matter how slow and leisurely, could not have been more perfect.
"We turned 5 today," he proudly told friends, business owners and residents who stopped to congratulate him on the festival, which was dreamed up to celebrate the racially diverse neighborhood tucked into the nook of the Carroll-Camden Industrial Area, not far from Camden Yards.
The festival, he later explained, "showcases the historical elements of Pigtown while also promoting the new texture of the neighborhood."
Since the event's first year, $400,000 townhouses have sprung up in Pigtown, new businesses and residents have moved in and city officials have made a major commitment to revitalizing a neighborhood that they have tried renaming Washington Village. Through eminent domain, the city acquired a dozen Washington Boulevard properties for commercial and residential construction to begin next year.
Neighbors say they're still troubled by drug dealing, and a police surveillance camera's blue light flashes just a block off the main drag in a testament to the area's battle against persistent crime.
But newcomers and old-timers alike said yesterday that signs of new life in Pigtown are undeniable.
In addition to the - ahem - race, the festival featured live music, puppets, a talent show and a dancing circus performer on stilts. A Pooch Pageant recognized dogs in costumes that performed tricks. And five chefs competed for top honors - and a pig welded together from nuts and bolts - in the inaugural "Iron Pig BBQ Cook-off."
Four judges evaluated each pork dish for taste, presentation and, as judge Richard Gorelick, a restaurant columnist for the City Paper, put it, "the general essence of piggy-ness."
While the judges whispered and sampled pork tenderloin, a stuffed chop, ribs and pulled pork sandwiches, Luz Gaxiola, an accordion player with the San Francisco-based Circus Finelli offered suspenseful music.
"Are they going to decide?" sang Gaxiola, dressed in a black ruffled crinoline skirt and yellow rain boots. "Who's it going to be? Whose pork is the best?"
In the end, it was Mike Richter of Columbia, a government auditor who prepared slow-smoked ribs in a homemade sauce that he and his buddies have finessed through years of taste-testing parties with friends. He and buddies -barbecue hobbyists, they say - call their operation the Chix, Swine and Bovine BBQ.
But the living pigs were clearly the stars of the afternoon.
Asked how festival organizers can seriously call their main event the Running of the Pigs, Danna laughed. "You need a sexy name," he said. "There's nothing sexier or more fun than bringing people to the neighborhood for the Running of the Pigs."
The festival's pig herding might be slow but it's at least historically accurate, said William "Bus" Chambers, the 78-year-old widely considered the mayor of Pigtown and its self-proclaimed oldest native resident.
"I don't know about the white folks," he clarified, "but I'm the oldest black guy."
He says he witnessed the last herding of the pigs through his neighborhood's streets in 1932 or 1933 and there was no running on that occasion, either.
"They were just milling around," he said with a chuckle. "Just ambling up the street. So they got it about right today."