A pink flamingo that adorns Cafe Hon in Hampden has become an icon in the neighborhood. But a city inspector has determined the sculpture, erected about seven years ago as part of a holiday display, needs a license or will have to come down.
Denise Whiting, who owns the popular restaurant at the corner of 36th Street and Roland Avenue, calls the sculpture, made from chicken wire and a bed sheet, "public art."
"It never crossed my mind I'd need a permit," she said. "Are there permits for all the sculptures around the harbor? Is there a permit for the statue in front of Penn Station?"
But according to a letter she received from the city's Department of General Services, the big bird projects "into the public right of way." While not technically unlawful, it is subject to a "minor privilege permit" that amounts to a tax. Once inspectors have determined there is a projection into the public right of way, the city can charge an annual fee.
City officials would not say precisely why they are aiming at the bird now, but indicated they typically get involved when others raise concerns.
"When we come out there is usually a complaint from the neighbors," said Khalil Zaied of the city's Department of General Services. "Matters like this are complaint-driven."
After receiving letters, violators can seek a resolution through an administrative hearing held by his agency.
Whiting said the flamingo, attached to a steel fire escape outside the restaurant, was created by Randall Gornowich, a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, and went up as a holiday decoration in a neighborhood known for its exuberant winter decor. Over the years, the bird established itself as a visual background icon for the annual Hon Festival.
She acknowledged the bird is weather-beaten and could use freshening up, but she said it was recently photographed for a New York Times travel article about Baltimore, which ran just after the city letter arrived.
"It's really become a part of the Baltimore landscape," she said.
Whiting said she resents the city inspector's citation years after the flamingo went up.
"It's like, now that we've made our mark, the city is saying, 'Let's pick on them,' " she said. "I've done a lot of things that draw attention to this community. This is just one of them."
Albert W. Barry III, former assistant director of planning for the city of Baltimore who is now a planning consultant, said that he has seen an increase in surveillance of restaurants and bars that have outdoor seating. Cafe Hon has several small outdoor tables - for which Whiting pays an annual fee - and a check of these by city inspectors could have triggered additional building inspection, he said.
"I am personally aware that the city's enforcement of minor privilege infractions has been increasing," Barry said. "One gets the feeling this is a concentrated effort that is spread throughout the city. No one area is being singled out."
He said that there have been complaints that sidewalks are being blocked by extra rows of unlicensed tables. He also said the laws that regulate these projections are antiquated, and could be reviewed soon. In one case, there was a complaint when a table umbrella's canvas extended over the sidewalk beyond a limit set by the city.
Whiting said that she began decorating the front of the building she rents a decade ago. At one point, she displayed bugs made from old vacuum cleaner bags. There were corrugated metal flowers. For Christmas 1999 there were angels. And after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, she had an American flag.
"I had artists come in and make these pieces," she said. "They are not advertisements. There is no lettering. I was supporting local art. I started doing this when Hampden wasn't quite there yet."