Performers on stage look out over a crowd at Hampdenfest 2022. Photo by Benn Ray.

The weather is suspiciously lovely on this late summer day in Hampden when an imposing sandy-blonde haired woman who looks like she could give Dog The Bounty Hunter a wedgie and get away with it gruffly asks “Do you make shirts”? My reply is scattered and incoherent. She cuts to the nitty gritty: “Do you make dinosaur shirts?” I see a guy standing behind her with a collared short sleeve dress shirt covered in ’80s dino prints and I say “Why don’t you ask him?” She turns around, taking note of the man’s dinosaur shirt, and gives a deep grin and laughs.

It’s Hampdenfest and even with all its forest-to-table eateries and countless “cafés,” Hampden still retains its old gumption. You can find it at Frazier’s with its deep battered fish and cozy booths; or Phillie’s Best where diehards know you can still get a chicken tikka pizza if you ask nice; or the antique shops who always seem to be selling the same assortment of attic-bound odds and ends from the late ’70s, like sun-damaged records and pale yellow plate sets with a few minor chips.

36th Street is the main thoroughfare of Baltimore’s historically eclectic neighborhood and during the festival it’s lined with ubiquitous tents, mostly white and indistinguishable at a glance. On closer inspection your nose catches the whiff of fragrant handmade soaps and thai food, mincing together in a surprisingly agreeable way as you peruse displays of hand-printed towels with Surrealist vegetables of various natures delicately painted as if by Earth’s own intuition.

I am operating out of a tent right smack dab in the middle of 36th Street with the opening of our tent facing Old Market Barbers. Jason Bartholomew, my tent mate and longtime friend who I am hocking my wares with, informs me after a bit of recon that indeed someone’s actually selling dinosaur shirts.

Jason is an extremely tall being who resembles a self-actualized Marlboro man, if he didn’t smoke and was nice enough to let you sell goofy shirts in his tent. Jason sells homemade novelty gifts like his “soft club,” a cozy stuffed animal-like version of the 90s analog security system that goes on your steering wheel that you can cuddle with or put over your wheel to fool no one. Jason’s knack for knick knacks has garnered the attention of folks like Jay Leno, who once featured his Obama era “Yes We Can Opener ” on late night TV. This is just the kind of weird that folks from surrounding towns and cities have come for.

The thing that seems to catch the most attention, aside from Jason’s collages of trans heroes made from repurposed glow-in-the-dark Slayer posters, is a giant wood cutout of The Ramones with holes underneath each mop of hair so that you, your parents, and your Labordoodle can sit in for Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy. Incidentally there’s a cemetery in Los Angeles called Hollywood Forever where Johnny Ramone is buried in disturbingly close proximity to Toto from The Wizard of Oz.

Our significant others swing by with sandwiches from Luigi’s and Cokes. I eat half a Meatball Chub, a sandwich made up of a carved out loaf of Italian bread filled with sauce and meatballs. It is divine. It’s enough to make you never wanna move to New York, or from your seat for that matter.

I run up the street to grab something from the car and passed the American Legion, whose members seemed none too pleased about my nonconventional clothing ensemble. Talk ceases amidst the grumpy consortium of grimacing folks thronged by American flags copiously festooning the porch as I pass nervously. Further up the way a woman with a rainbow flag adorning her roof is taking advantage of the increased foot traffic by having a little porch sale of what looks to be their kid’s stuff who’s off to school or somewhere. She smiles warmly. That’s Hampden though; it’s never one thing. One second someone shouts something awful to you out of their truck, and the next minute someone’s dachshund is licking your hand while you chat outside The Charmery over melting cones.

I can’t help but notice the Golden West Cafe, which is right behind my tent. I think back to when I dished there: grease-covered days, at least for me. I dreaded Hampdenfest then because I thought we’d be slammed all day, but generally it’d be tourists getting one lemonade and maybe some fries, then sitting for two hours to cool off. Not great for the bottom line but wonderful for the dishroom!

I catch up with my friend Brandon Arinoldo who currently works front-of-house at Golden West. I ask if things have been topsy turvy with all the extra visitors? “Not this year,” Brandon remarks. “In years past it was crazy.” I think to myself, perhaps people are reflexively gunshy from the precedent of having to do the Safety Dance these past two years.

Of the customers, Brandon adds, “It’s totally varied. Lots of young folks, lots of people that have seemingly come in from the county, lots of people from Baltimore who have never before patronized our restaurant.” Sounds about what I experienced back in my sudsy days. But looking around things feel different, with exploding development and new shops popping up every other day that look like they were air dropped from Portland.

Real estate-wise, Hampden is a hot spot, and people want in. The wealth gap widens every year between many lifelong residents and newcomers as the neighborhood becomes a bigger commodity. Brandon reflects on Hampden now compared to years back: “It’s become waaaaay more expensive, not just to live in, but extremely hard to pay rent on a business in.” It makes me wonder if Hampden is doomed to become a posh Airbnb shell of its former self with its richness and authenticity priced out to more affordable lands as so often happens in these situations.

Regardless of what’s to come for the neighborhood itself, we can take a collective sigh on this idyllic blue-sky day, seeing our tattooed and non-tattooed neighbors keeping it weird, as it were.

A small but noticeable segment of festival goers, dressed like extras from various decades, rekindle your faith. A person passes me in black and yellow checkered pants with gumby-green hair, rocking about 30 mismatched bracelets, and Tank Girl combat boots. They walk with a friend wearing a comparatively more uniform ensemble consisting of pink sneakers; a pink daffodil-printed dress; a pink shirt with a cartoon-like strawberry on it; all topped off with a pink bandanna, of course.

Later, as I’m explaining my weird t-shirts for the 88th time that day, a shirtless, sunburnt gentleman passes, looking like a cross between a Greek statue and a gunslinger from some Sergio Leone flick. He firmly grips the half-strung neck of a battered, unironic ukulele in one hand, and a bottle of something in the other.

As I settle back into my merchant tent I see big ol’ Benn Ray pass in a scurry to put out some proverbial fire. If one is in search of answers regarding Hampdenfest and what the vibe was like in pre-gelato times, you really can’t do much better than Benn, who along with co owner and partner Rachel Whang, has run Atomic Books for about 30 years now. They’ve been in Hampden for over 20 of those years. They moved the store to its current location on Falls Road at the intersection of 36th Street after leaving Mount Vernon way back in 2001.

In addition to running one of the few places where you can find your favorite obscure graphic novel, Rachel and Benn are also the main organizers of Hampdenfest. Far from a recent development, they’ve been knee deep for years in the chaos and joy of running a festival of this size and tradition.

“I first got involved in Hampdenfest in 2002, back when it was still called something like The Hampden Village Fall Arts Festival,” Benn explains. “Initially, I was just involved in booking a stage of bands. After my first year, as other organizers dropped out, my partner Rachel Whang and I became increasingly more and more involved to the point where we, with the help of a small army of volunteers, ran the festival.”

Given the turbulent nature of recent times with all its restrictions and guidelines, one can imagine the utter migraine of organizing a day which includes bands, food, merchants, permits, and some inevitable drama be it small or large.

“Really, every year kind of has its own personality,” Benn says. “Being an outdoor festival, weather is always the tough part. Nothing is sadder than a rainy day festival.This year, the weather was great. But having not been able to stage the festival for two years because of COVID made things tricky.”

As if those challenges were not enough to contend with, Benn, Rachel, and other organizers got thrown a real curveball that threatened to put a kibosh on the whole thing.

In April, Mayor Brandon Scott announced that Artscape would be returning this year; and instead of being held at its usual time in July, it would move to September.

Shortly after, however, organizers said Artscape would not be held in 2022 after all, but that they would hold a preview this year of the 2023 festival.

The Artscape announcements created confusion for Hampdenfest, Benn says.

“Artscape then made things even more uncertain when they announced they would move from summer, when their festival has always been held, to some mystery time in September,” he says. “That effectively killed the whole month of September, which is when our festival has been held for decades. Due to Artscape’s size, it puts a lock on city agencies, resources, vendors, etc. we all share. It sort of sucks all the festival oxygen up. At that point, we were thinking there would be no festival this year.”

Benn explains how there’s a certain level of diplomacy organizers adhere to when considering dates in order to not schedule close to other festivals. With all the festivals in Baltimore, it’s a challenge scheduling events on a regular year let alone with last-minute surprises, he says.

Donna Drew Sawyer, CEO of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, the agency that puts on Artscape, said the next Artscape will not be held in the middle of the summer.

The timing of Artscape could complicate planning for other events, like Hampdenfest, Benn says.

“If they camp on September next year, that will create a lot of problems for us and other neighborhood festivals who have traditionally been held in the fall, so who knows what September 2023 is going to look like?” he says.

After a bit of recon, Benn and his co organizers realized that due to COVID-19, multiple festivals had moved their dates around to later in the year, creating a whole new series of challenges for this year’s Hampdenfest.

“We picked a date. Moved the date. Picked the date. Moved the date,” he says. “Eventually, this left us with 2 months to put together a festival that typically takes 9 months to organize. And because of this late start, a number of vendors, performers, etc. had already made other plans. But it seemed to all work out for the best. We were able to create more open spaces between booths, and the lineup of performers was one of the best we’ve ever had. So, despite all the shuffling, it worked out great.”

At one point my partner in Hampdenfest commerce, Jason Bartholomew, introduces me to his neighbor, a middle-aged Mennonite gentleman who has set up shop right across from us with his family where they’ve just started making popcorn. They wave and smile over the sound of kernels popping as Jason’s neighbor purchases a miniature yellow saltbox that doubles as a piggy-bank from him, one of Jason’s most popular items, and a pretty penny at that.

It’s touching to see neighbors having each other’s backs in a time of such polarization. I see folks from all walks of life passing by. A tall woman with rainbow dyed hair chats giddily with a friend as they take in all the randomness. Another woman in a yellow sun dress holds a fake pink carnation. She’s being pulled along by an eager dog who’s just spotted a Yorkie with its owner dressed in all black yoga-chic looking a bit overheated as she sips a cool cup of ice water. The two chat while the dogs make introductions in a way that one would deem inappropriate in the human realm. I feel a sense of, dare I say it: community. This is one of the things that keeps Benn Ray in the thick of the festival madness despite its many challenges.

“The fun part of organizing the festival is community,” he says. “It’s about bringing friends and neighbors together to help with the festival; to perform at the festival; to serve their beer, their food; to open up their shops; to set up and [sell] their art. It’s about getting all that going and then walking down the street and seeing neighbors and friends and visitors having a great time. This year, after a grueling, sweaty day of setting up, I think I spent the last 4 hours walking around with a big grin on my face at what we were all able to accomplish together, as friends, as neighbors. It’s really kind of a ridiculous endeavor when you think about it. And I was thinking about it and laughing.”