During the Christmas season, Hampden plays host to hundreds of visitors who flock to the 700 block of 34th St. to gawk at the houses' over-the-top lights and decorations. The annual display draws travelers who might otherwise bypass the central Baltimore neighborhood.
Bounded by Johns Hopkins University to the east and the Jones Falls Expressway (Interstate 83) to the west, Hampden shares no crossroads with the rest of the city. Its main business street, 36th Street, is known as "The Avenue" and cuts across avenues such as Chestnut, Elm and Hickory. The main north-south arteries are Falls Road, Keswick Road and Roland Avenue, which leads to Hampden's northern neighbor, Roland Park.
"People don't have any sense of living in the city here because of the geographic boundaries," says Richard Wheatley, director of Hampden's Roosevelt Park Recreation Center.
And the city around it may have little sense of Hampden.
While the rows of illuminated candy canes, nativity scenes and ++ strands of lights dazzle visitors, the characteristics that make Hampden unique year-round are less visible.
But talk to some of the Hampdenites gathered along 36th Street for the 22nd annual Mayor's Christmas Parade, and the attributes become clearer.
"Hampden is like one big family," sums up Kathy Turner. And she should know. Mrs. Turner grew up in Hampden and is part of four generations of Turners who live within walking distance of each other.
Many residents echoed her assessment of the neighborhood.
"You can walk down the street, and you'll always know somebody," says Viola Herd. The 35-year-old waitress grew up in Hampden and moved back five years ago with her husband, William, 42. Initially they were planning to rent out the house they bought next door to Mrs. Herd's parents on Chestnut Avenue, but they decided to move in themselves.
The Herds were attracted by the area's affordability, a feature that appeals to young and first-time homebuyers, according to O'Conor, Piper & Flynn agent Alex Smith.
"They're kind of looking for a 'grandma' house with all the updated conveniences," says Mr. Smith, who has been selling homes in Hampden since 1984. The variety of architectural features, from big porches to bow fronts, at affordable prices attracts buyers who don't mind doing some fixing up, he says.
Prices for single-family houses range from $30,000 to just over $100,000.
"The best thing about it is the feeling of a small-town community," he says.
But the neighborhood's friendly familiarity doesn't always extend outsiders, so newcomers should plan to stay a while if they want to feel accepted in the community, according to Mr. Wheatley.
"If you're looking for a place to live for a few years and then move on, pass it by," he says. "But if you're looking for a place to stay, then this is as good a place as any."
Hampdenites may seem standoffish at first; "on the other hand, in six months, it may be hard to get your neighbors off the porch," he says.
And it may be even harder when those neighbors are also your relatives, as in the case of the Turner family. "We usually meet at Dad's house," says Arnold Turner, describing the frequent get-togethers with his parents, three brothers and their families. "The weekends are kind of busy there."
Like his brothers, Mr. Turner grew up in Hampden, moved away briefly, but returned to be near the family. The 37-year-old fire department battalion chief grew up in houses on both ends of 36th Street and now lives on Wellington Avenue with his wife, Kathy, and two teen-age sons.
The Turners say they appreciate the convenience of having drugstores, restaurants and schools within walking distance, and the easy accessibility of I-83 by 29th Street or by Cold Spring Lane.
Mr. Turner even found his wife within walking distance. "We met in a grocery store in Hampden; we both lived in Hampden all our lives; we got married in Hampden," he says.
The self-contained nature of the neighborhood is by design, since it was a bustling textile mill town before it was officially incorporated into Baltimore in 1888.
Mr. Wheatley points to these origins as the roots of Hampden's cohesiveness. "The mill owners made the people here feel the outsiders were coming to get their jobs," he said.
The early inhabitants of the area were mostly rural folks looking to work in one of the many textile mills along the Jones Falls. They often came as families and kept at least one relative, often a child, working in a mill to qualify for the subsidized, company-owned housing. Mill owners sponsored other amenities such as churches and schools for their workers.
The cotton duck industry peaked in the 1890s when nearly 4,000 people worked in the mills of Hampden and Woodberry, a neighbor on the other side of the Jones Falls.
The mills closed with the slackening demand for the heavy canvas material after World War II. The last mill, Mount Vernon Mills, moved its remaining operations to North Carolina in 1972.
But the industry left behind a community molded by generations of a self-contained life. Thirty-Sixth Street had become the commercial center of that life with its movie theaters, department stores and shops.
Lifelong resident Steve Spoon, 40, remembers when "The Avenue" was Hampden's main attraction during the Christmas season. "It had bells in the middle of the street, Santa Clauses hooked up on the poles," he says.
Mr. Spoon, who lives on Keswick Road, is glad to see the 34th Street residents carrying on the tradition.
But tradition has given way to economics as the shops and department stores that used to draw crowds of shoppers to the "Avenue" have given way to the lure of suburban malls and ZTC warehouse discounters. Vacant storefronts dot the street between drugstores, eateries and thrift stores.
New System Bakery is one stalwart whose art-deco storefront still embraces patrons looking for the pies, buns and breads still handmade on the premises after 73 years.
Halethorpe resident Paul Perrera drove back to his old neighborhood one rainy Saturday to stock up on boxes of fruit-filled, glazed and chocolate-covered fantasies.
"It is a landmark," said the 58-year-old trucking company owner, who has frequented the bakery since his childhood.
Many residents might also consider Roosevelt Park a landmark. The recreation center has been an integral part of the neighborhood since it was built in 1911, with the funds of residents, mill owners and the city.
It was initially a bathhouse for the nearby pool and was used as a meetinghouse for striking mill workers in the 1920s. For generations it has been home to youth sport leagues such as the Hampden Small Fries baseball league.
Mr. Wheatley, who started coming to the center when he was 6 years old, says he tries to make Roosevelt Park "a place where families can come," not just a sports center.
"You have to look to find us. If you don't look, that's OK; we'll still be here living our lives."
Population: 9,431 (1990 U.S. Census)
Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 15 minutes.
Commuting time to Washington: 1 hour.
Public schools: Hampden Elementary School, Robert Poole Middle School, Roland Park Elementary and Middle Schools, Western High School, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.
Shopping: The Rotunda Shopping Center, Salvation Army and Goodwill thrift stores and other assorted shops on 36th Street
Nearest Malls: Mondawmin Mall, 1 mile southwest
Points of Interest: 34th Street lights, New System Bakery, Roosevelt Park Recreation Center, Wyman Park
Zip code: 21211
Average price of single-family home*: $51,812 (65 sales)
* Average price for homes sold through the Mid-Atlantic Real Estate Information Technologies' multiple listing service over the past 12 months.