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Lifestyle

Hampden

While the gentrification process is far from complete, Hampden seems to be finally coming into its own as a destination for funky, affordable shopping and interesting eating.

Stroll down the four blocks of 36th Street (known locally as "The Avenue") that constitute Hampden's main drag and you can almost forget that you are still within the city's boundaries. This old mill town turned kitschy cool enclave combines the charm of small town America with a big city location.

The view down 37th Street from Falls Road is impressive. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Hampden's Avenue crams a mixed bag of eclectic entrepreneurial enterprises into a less than half-mile strip, ranging from vintage shops and art galleries to ethnic eateries. So, if you're up for a Baltimore day outing (other than a handful of gritty bars, Hampden's not known for its swinging nightlife) but you want to cross the street without needing a "Walk" sign, spend a day on the Avenue, hon. Be sure to bring lots of cash and cards, though, because this area is made for shopping.

Incorporated into the city of Baltimore in 1888, the village of Hampden (the p is silent) was born of necessity in the mid-1800s. Located in the Jones Falls Valley, Hampden originally served as a bedroom community for the once-booming textile industry.

During the 1800s, the mills surrounding Hampden produced 80 percent of the world's cotton duck, a material used for making ships' sails. The mills, which were in operation from 1822 to 1972, provided the community's primary source of income and employment for more than 100 years.

Rumored to be named by rich landowner Henry Mankin in honor of John Hampden, a British statesman whom Mankin admired, the area has evolved into a favored location for college students, recent graduates and emerging artists. Drawn by the area's low rents and small-town charm, these culturally diverse groups are rapidly populating the once predominantly white, working-class community of Hampden.

These rowhouses are typical of the homes in Hampden. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Unlike the bordering neighborhood of wealthy, mansion-laden Roland Park, Hampden consists mainly of rowhouses, many still covered with Formstone, and small, two-story, single-family homes. Middle-classers and young artists find an ideal city-based location minus most of the parking hassles of living in downtown Baltimore.

"Doing" the Avenue

Are you in need of some new-to-you threads? Hampden has enough polyester to outfit the cast, crew and extras for a disco revival movie, or just about any other period flick. Although it lacks a chain department store, Hampden offers a handful of discount, retro, used and just plain cheap clothing stores.

You can find anything you need on The Avenue, but the most important shop is The Avenue Ice Cream. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Joelle Kutsiukis, owner of Galvanize, a retro and vintage clothing and accessory shop, specializes in "fun stuff at fun prices" and boasts the largest collection of men's retro clothing in the Baltimore area. The Hollywood-types frequent Galvanize when in town, outfitting their sets with "retro wares" handpicked by Kutsiukis.

Elvis Presley also makes an appearance in Hampden. Well, his name does, at least. Fat Elvis, an "antiques, collectibles and decor items" shop, carries an amazing variety of retro and vintage clothing, furniture and random items. Some other places to find antique or retro treasures include Hampden Junque, the Turnover Shop, the Avenue Gallery, Millbrook Antiques and Paradiso.

Some trendy members of the 36th Street scene include Cloud 9, a locally owned boutique featuring trendy clothing for young women; Shine, which carries clothes, home accessories and personal items with a funky edge; In Watermelon Sugar, with artistic objects and accessories for home and garden, and Ma Petite Shoe, which opened in September 2002 and offers footwear by such designers as Hype, John Fluevog and XOXO Footwear.

Atomic Books, the home for alternative and independent publications, moved uptown from Mount Vernon in 2001. Pop culture-driven and browser-friendly, Atomic Books also carries gifts, CDs and DVDs from outside the mainstream.

The colorful facade of Shine blends right in on The Avenue. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

The Wine Source relocated from the Rotunda in 2001. Owner David Wells and his personable, knowledgeable staff will guide novice and oenophile alike in their selections. And their recommendations come with a full money-back guarantee.

If you're looking for distinctly "Bawlmer" (the remains of Old Baltimore's slurred dialect) or just plain kooky items, bop on over to Hometown Girl, across the street from Hampden's famed eating spot, Cafe Hon. At this anything-goes-shop, you can purchase a coffee mug complete with a brief dictionary of Bawlmerese. You'll be getting wired and talking like a native in no time, hon. After browsing, stop to enjoy an ice cream sundae at the old-fashioned soda fountain in the back.

Of course, after trekking up and down the Avenue hunting out the unique and eccentric, you'll probably develop quite an appetite. Hampden has plenty of good eats. The locals frequent Mamie's Cafe, a down-home cooking spot that showcases Hampden's working-class community roots. You might feel you've just entered Grandma's club basement, so make yourself at home. Everyone else does.Wednesday is steamed lobster night at Mamie's, where a one-and-one-half pound lobster can be had for $7. Reservations are required. Saturdays are always "dollar days," when you can build your own meal from a choice of ingredients, including crab balls, beer-battered fish, mashed potatoes, French fries, various veggies and salad -- all for only $1 each.

This mural off Elm Street contributes to the neighborhood. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

A Common Ground is a tiny spot, but the food is worthy of a much larger venue. Fare includes hearty soups, substantive sandwiches and comforting casseroles, plus excellent baked goods.

A trip to Hampden is not complete without a cup of coffee and a slice of pie from Cafe Hon. Or stay for an entire meal. A dose of the cafe's "Much Better than Mom's Meatloaf" served with gravy, homemade mashed potatoes and the vegetable of the day and Dottie's bread pudding with caramel sauce will fix you right up.

When you see the huge portions at Holy Frijoles, you'll begin to understand how it got its name. It's your basic Tex-Mex cooking and lots of it, served up in a colorful, if cramped, setting. The addition of a liquor license means guests can have a Corona or margarita with their enchiladas, though not on Sunday. An expansion into the adjacent space is planned, so stay tuned.

Now that you're well-fed, it's time for a little culture, Hampden-style. That means forget the stuffy galleries and pretentious, artsy-fartsies who have invaded B-more's art scene (as local director John Waters illustrated in "Pecker"). Hampden is all about giving props to the locals. So, before you complete your Hampden experience, be sure to drop by a few galleries. Mud and Metal features a bounty of metal sculptures with a particular emphasis on insects, animals and floral creations. Paper Rock Scissors represents more than 75 local and regional artists in a variety of media. Wild Yam Pottery unites the utilitarian and the decorative in affordable ceramic creations. And The Pearl Gallery presents fine art framing, the work of local artists, lamps, other accessories and gift items.

If your preference is for the performing arts, check out Experimental Movement Concepts, a dance and exercise studio on Falls Road. Home to a professional modern dance company, The Collective, EMC offers classes in ballet, tap, hip-hop and jazz, as well as Flamenco, belly dance and Pilates.

Now that you've shopped, eaten and gotten cultured on the Avenue, you can truly say you've been there and done that in Baltimore's one-and-only Hampden, hon. Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun

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