Tuesday, October 05, 2004

What's The Matter With Hampden? Intro: Or Urban Class Tourist Helps Destroy Heaven Even As He'd Like To Preserve It

It really is fall ya'll, time to bust out the tweed. It's also time for the second most beautiful season in the most beautiful neighborhood of the Greatest City In America. In autumn, Hampden is gorgeous, but it's a kind of thoughful beauty that with a slight chill makes one get reflective. So this post dispenses with the usual exhapseration with our ridiculous culture in favor of something more unreadable and long winded. Won't you join us for the first in a series?

This August marked the beginning of my third year living in Hampden. When I first moved to Baltimore, I didn't know anyone, and I didn't know much about the place except that "Homicide" took place here, the crabs were good, and Martin O'Malley was profiled in Esquire because he was, among other things, handsome and white in a city that was majority not white(shades of Jerry Brown in Oakland? - more on that later).

I spent the first six months living in the county, since I wanted some time to get a feel for the city before I took the advice of a native Baltimorean I had known in SF and moved to Federal Hill. I wasn't about to do that, because given the type of guy he was, it was obvious that he was recommending the area of town that every city must now possess in order to get the upwardly mobile cash flow. It's the area of the city whose construction appeals to upper-middle class folks who want city life without the mess. It's the area of town with a plethora of upscale bars with over-priced micro-brews, lots of overly styled white folks who walk the streets with what a cab driver in SF once described as that "arrogant swagger of entitlement only rich people who've never worked a day in their lives can have"(I swear I didn't make that up - you want lucidity on the topic of displacement, ask a native who's reduced to driving a cab). It's the area of town where suddenly every old building has been converted to "loft style apartments". It's the area of town where someone has gone to a lot of effort to create the appearance of something "happening". In short it's Disnurbia, and it sucks.

The guy who made the recommendation could be forgiven for thinking I should move to a place like that, because at the time I was making plans to move I was living in a loft in SOMA(this is a long complex story that involves heartbreak, psychosis, 9/11, financial dissolution and betrayal, but it's not nearly as interesting as that might sound). Although in SF I did live South of Market for a year and half, my real home was always the Lower Haight, where I lived the majority of the 10 years I spent in that city by the other bay. The rent was cheap, the houses were old, the people who owned the houses had been there for years if not generations. Sure, it was dangerous - the joke was that before the earthquake destroyed the Central Freeway you didn't even DRIVE into Lower Haight - but it was a simple matter to let the local thugs know you weren't going to upset business and they'd leave you alone. The Lower Haight never faced the problems of the Mission(where tons of upper middle class white hipsters moved in the mid 1990's and managed to displace pretty much half the working class Mexican population, and now is so expensive not even your average $100,000 a year tech worker can afford to live there). I think partly it was because at the time I moved it was still considered the second most dangerous place in SF, and was surrounded by Hayes Valley, Cole Valley, The Castro, and the Upper Haight, which were all far safer, far cleaner, and far more hip. The Lower Haight, on the other hand, contained bars, interesting people, some great old buildings, and the best view of the city possible.

When I did finally meet people in Baltimore, it turned out that although they didn't know each other, they lived a block apart in a neighborhood I'd never heard of, called Hampden. I did a little research, discovered that it was mostly white, mostly working class, and cheap. I was a little freaked out by the "mostly white" part, since I'd never lived anyplace "mostly white". But it has bars, great architecture(have you seen the old churches here?), and a reputation for being "heaven for anyone". And since I was down and out and hoping to find a home, it seemd(and still seems) perfect. When I met a married couple who'd just bought a house here, and they needed a tennant for their basement apartment, I took the opportunity and haven't looked back.

But of course, there are problems. Hampden is now going through its own gentrification, and because of that, property taxes for a population that goes back generations are rising. Families that could once afford a comfortable life on fairly meagre means are having to sell their homes and rent(who knows where?). This state of affairs is breeding a fair bit of resentment. I haven't felt it personally(my skills as class tourist are by now impeccable so no one sees me as the enemy, at least not yet), but you can hear it discussed in the local bar, and evidently the Community Council has lots to say on the matter. This is a replay of what happened in SF 6 years ago, and if I'm right, it's going to get damn ugly.

So what's the matter with Hampden? From the local's point of view, those damn rich kids, yuppies and elitists are coming in, making things expensive, being drunk and obnoxious, taking up all the parking, and driving up the cost of everything, making it harder to raise their children, take care of their elderly and look out for one another. They're starting to get mad, and they're right. Why should I live in Hampden and wreck their hood when I can afford to live in the Disnurbia O'Malley built just for people like me? They'll want me out because when the market starts to roll, it rolls over them and puts me on top.

I'm not sure who they blame in the large sense yet, but it'll probably be "those liberals" before too long. I have heard more than once that "Hampden used to be a great place until all those art people showed up and made it weird". So why not? Baltimore has been a one party town for nearly a century, so it's the Democrats who haven't done anything to stop this, and more than likely the Democrats won't do anything. Gentrification of this sort is considered an urban success, not a failure, and since government has been willfully stripped of its power to work for people in this situation, nothing can stop it.