It began with a bathroom renovation and ended with a toilet race Saturday at Hampdenfest.
Lisa Harbin and Bob Atkinson redid a bathroom in their Baltimore house this year, and what else could they do with their old toilet but mount it on a board between two bikes and roll it down Chestnut Street with crowds cheering and the toilet paper rolls on their bike swirling.
With perfect late September weather and crowds that filled The Avenue for blocks, Hampdenfest went on a week later than usual but with fun, food and everything quintessentially Hampden. There were three bands playing at different street corners, but the center of the fun was the fifth annual toilet races.
The races had 26 entries this year, including the Gorilla Finger racing team with its fake-fur-covered toilet and pink-flamingo-covered frame (a nod to John Waters) and the Black Turdornadoes. A toilet ridden by Natty Boh raced a toilet ridden by a big black rat. (The rat won.)
Un-flush-ed Gordon, a team that captured the toilet race crown two years ago, was reworked this year. Plaster adornments that slowed down the bike were taken off. To add a bit of artistry to the bike, they added a spray-foam sculpture that was painted brown. The sculpture rose out of the toilet seat.
"It is a turd," said Shawn Smith, who runs a Hampden-based ornamental plaster company.
The races are held on Chestnut Avenue, with each bike pushed by a team to get it started on a two-block roll down the street. A line of hay across the road at the end of the race ensures that runaway bikes with no brakes have a safe landing to the hay.
The Atkinson team, Team Atomic, was not simply thrown together. This project took planning. Team member Becky Abernathy enlisted her father. "My father is retired," she said. "He likes a project. I said, 'I need a gravity racer with a toilet' and he said, 'I am on it.'"
A week later, Abernathy got a nine-page PDF in her email in-box with a detailed design. The team got two old bikes off the Internet, scavenged spare parts from three others, and spray-painted the toilet seat. The final touch was the local brews that were kept on ice inside the bowl.
Festivalgoers said they enjoyed the laid-back, happy atmosphere. The streets were crowded but not as jammed as at Honfest, which attracts a more out-of-town crowd, and merchants said business was great. Smith said Hampdenfest is his favorite festival because it honors the neighborhood's blue-collar roots. "No matter how many hipsters move in, there are still a lot of blue-collar [people]," he said. "It is a homespun neighborhood with world-class food."
But the out-of-towners who did join the festivities Saturday said they were impressed. David Reis came from Philadelphia to watch one of the bands. "Philadelphia has street festivals. This is a little nicer, a little friendlier," he said. It feels as though gentrification has been kept at bay, said his friend Kevin Murphy, also from Philadelphia. The neighborhood feels authentic — a bit bohemian, and very natural, he said.
Brandi Nieland, who had rolled her grandmother in a wheelchair to the festival from her house, said she bought in the area because of its walkability and the festivals.
"Everyone is so friendly," she said. "It is nice to see local vendors."
The festival seemed untouched by the controversy that nearly shut it down. City officials told organizers earlier this summer that city services would be stretched too thin if the festival went on during the Star-Spangled Spectacular last weekend. So the festival was moved to a week later.
Steve Baker, who has organized and run the toilet race for years, said he would have liked the celebration to go on last weekend during the anniversary of the writing of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
"Have the whole city celebrate," he said. "It would be chaos, but it would be awesome."