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Retro Baltimore

Retro: City Fair, a September tradition, showcased Baltimore’s neighborhoods

It began as a gathering, a place to celebrate life in Baltimore, for the people who lived here and loved the place. The annual City Fair lasted for about 20 years and was part block party, country fair, ethnic bazaar and flower mart.

After the first fair in 1970 was a striking success, it became an annual event, and people lost track of their post-1968 riot anxiety. The final fairs moved on to other locations ― in Harbor East and on a parking lot near the old Eastern High School on 33rd Street. The final fair was in 1991.

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The fair was envisioned as a showcase of city neighborhoods and ethnic communities with a backdrop of a downtown that was then being rebuilt along the harbor’s edge.

“A unique idea and a familiar tradition merged yesterday to give more than 10,000 people at the opening of the Baltimore City Fair a deeper understanding of their city as well as an afternoon of carnival excitement,” The Sun reported Sept. 26, 1970.

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The weather did not cooperate for the first fair. September was hot, then a brisk storm raced through the city, and its winds tore apart booths that neighborhood groups had constructed.

“It was really a mess,” said the fair’s chair, Christopher Hartman.

But volunteers pitched in and put the stands back in shape.

News reports said that the Charles Village and the American Indian Center’s displays were ruined by the gusts.

“Union Square helped restore Gay Street and Mount Holly helped restore Charles Village,” Hartman said.

“The 1970 City Fair was an idea cooked up by Housing Commissioner Bob Embry, and two hyper-capable women who worked for him, Sandy Hillman and Hope Quackenbush,” said Stan Heuisler, the entertainment committee chair of the first fair.

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“The city was still traumatized by the riots following the assassination of Dr. King in 1968,” he said. “So as State Fairs gather all the state’s counties in common celebration, the City Fair was to serve the same unifying role with Baltimore’s neighborhoods.”

Heuisler recalled that first fair opened with a happy but very informal parade at noon on Friday, with a reviewing stand in Hopkins Plaza on Fayette Street.

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“Unusually hot weather had created a school shutdown, so the parade was flooded with young students. In the front of the reviewing stand was a giant bunch of balloons tethered by a quite large, knotted together mass of string,” he said. “When time came to release the balloons, State Comptroller Louis Goldstein looked down at some kids by the reviewing stand and said with a smile: ‘Now one of you young men has to have a knife. Could we borrow it?’”

A flipped open footlong switchblade was handed up. Goldstein handed it to Mayor “Young Tommy” D’Alesandro, who used the shiv to patiently saw through the snarled mass of balloon strings, and they all soon floated up to open the fair, which drew hundreds of thousands over the weekend and successfully got many city neighborhoods from Greektown on the East to Ashburton on the West back together.

“Goldstein had returned the illegal knife to the kids with cops looking the other way,” Heuisler said.

By Sunday evening, the fair shut down. About 65,000 people gathered for a “loud and colorful” fireworks display from various areas near downtown.

The Sun reported that 340,000 people had come downtown for a day in the sun. One visitor wrote in a comments book, “Let’s have more fairs.”


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