The tale of two festivals; Competition: The Highlandtown Fun Fest and the Baltimore Waterfront Festival offer different attractions to tourist and resident alike.


One festival had big-time corporate sponsors, sleek, multimillion-dollar racing yachts and 200,000 people who attended from Pennsylvania and Virginia and even from overseas. The other festival -- "fest," actually -- had a brand-spanking-new Walgreens drugstore, skateboards costing upward of $100 and perhaps 7,000 people from as far as, well, Dundalk.

In the love-hate relationship between Baltimore, city of neighborhoods, and Baltimore, city of the world-famous Inner Harbor, yesterday was a beautiful day for a little friendly competition in the serious business of fun.

Pessimists saw a conspiracy in the fact that the Baltimore Waterfront Festival was set to finish its four-day run on the same day as the Highlandtown Fun Fest. Optimists saw the harbor boom as promise that the prosperity that drifted east to Canton might now, finally, be squeezed north into Highlandtown.

But those few who made the trek from festival to festival, from the eastern to the western end of Eastern Avenue, could not help comparing them.

"The Highlandtown festival is a lot better, let's face it," said Highlandtown resident Charles Siebert, 38, a truck driver and collector of exotic animals, who showed off his pet iguana at the neighborhood fair before heading to the harbor to allow the larger crowds to ogle his boa constrictor, named Millennium. "In Highlandtown, everybody I see, I know. It's my territory."

But Siebert did not think the harbor throngs who pressed around to see Millennium were doing any harm to struggling Eastern Avenue.

"Bring on the tourists," declared Siebert, an exotic in the environs of the Light Street Pavilion in his leather, tattoos and Harley-Davidson T-shirt. "Spend your money in Baltimore. Maybe a little bit will trickle down to Highlandtown."

The Waterfront Festival, it's true, had the Key West-Baltimore sailing race, with some of the world's top racers showing off their craft in the harbor after crossing the finish line in front of the Rusty Scupper restaurant. It had Volvo and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and Chevy Chase Bank as sponsors, each with a crew of clean-cut organizers toting cell phones to help out.

But for those with only an ocean of pavement outside their doors, the Fun Fest had a skateboard competition with its sponsor, the Charm City Skateboard Shop. Three wooden ramps and all kinds of benches and platforms were placed on blocked-off Grundy Street for several dozen mostly teen-age competitors.

"If you're good enough, it can be a good career," said Steve Jeanetto, 14, of Armistead Gardens, trading tips with his friend, Chris Asbury, 16, on tricks with names like "Nollie heel flip" and "Frontside flip."

They were pleased to have an officially sanctioned event for their sport, which they see as the victim of constant adult harassment. They have been chased many times from the Inner Harbor, they said, and even in East Baltimore the neighbors can be hostile.

"Everyone hates the skateboarders," Jeanetto said. "One lady near us, if lightning strikes her house, she'll blame the skateboarders."

Sign of growth

If the Waterfront Festival had booths where participants could buy a second home on Deep Creek Lake or purchase a sea kayak, only Highlandtown's fair featured the grand opening of Walgreens. The store's shining rows of wristwatches and antacids might not be a major event in some communities, but on Eastern Avenue, where all mourn the loss of such anchors as Epstein's and Goldenberg's, its arrival is taken as a rare vote of confidence.

"They got everything under the sun," said Jennie Gibbs, 68, staring at the rows of hair products. "And there's no competition for them around here, that's for sure."

Gibbs, who left Poland at the age of 7 as Janina Augusiewicz and spent decades working in area canneries and factories, said she has watched the storefronts empty along what was called "The Avenue" long before an upstart development in White Marsh appropriated the name.

"If Walgreens brings more people here, more power to it," she said.

International flavors

If the Waterfront Festival had Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Cafe, as well as the Phillips Restaurant Crab Cook-Off, only the Highlandtown Festival had Stella International Food Co.

Owner Ali Ehteshami arrived at 6 a.m. to bake -- Italian bread for his Italian sausages and Greek Easter bread for Orthodox Easter.

Inside, the Iranian-born Ehteshami showed off a United Nations of foods, from Polish cod liver and Iranian salted watermelon seeds to Greek mountain tea and coffee from Greece, Turkey, Spain and Lebanon, coexisting peacefully on the same rack.

Ehteshami said he was disappointed by the thin customer traffic. "There should not be two festivals at the same time," he said. "People go to the harbor instead."

Baltimore City Councilman John L. Cain, 60, manning a Democratic Party booth on Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown, agreed.

"I don't think the harbor's success necessarily drains the neighborhoods," said Cain, a 1st District Democrat. "But the city puts an inordinate amount of money into the harbor in loans and grants and tax relief. So when they get to the neighborhoods, nothing's left."

Bill Gilmore, who oversaw the Waterfront Festival as executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion, said that if Baltimore is to be a world-class city, it cannot choose between neighborhoods and the Inner Harbor, which he said was designed to be "a playground for residents of every neighborhood."

"All great cities have central gathering places," he said. "I think that's what the Inner Harbor offers."

Schaefer remembers

One well-known Marylander associated with both harbor and neighborhoods also said both must be nurtured. William Donald Schaefer, former mayor and governor, current state comptroller, was serving for the second year as a judge of the Crab Cook-Off. Resting from the arduous duty of eating Lynn Piette's first-place "Corn and Crab Imperial," he pondered the issue.

"We started with the neighborhoods first," Schaefer said of his mayoralty from 1971 to 1986. "Everybody thinks we started with the harbor. But first we put up signs in the neighborhoods, we fixed the lights, we fixed the sidewalks, we fixed the streets. Only then did we go to the harbor."

Schaefer, 78, acknowledged that he had not had a chance to stop by the Highlandtown Fun Fest. But he recalled regularly using the neighborhood as a measure of the progress of his work.

A walk down Eastern

"When I was mayor, if I wanted to know how the city felt, I'd walk Eastern Avenue," he said. "If people talked to me, everything was OK. If they didn't speak -- nobody was rude, but they just wouldn't say anything -- that meant something was wrong."

As for the neighborhood's struggle to prosper again, Schaefer said he thinks it will succeed. "They've had a lot of troubles," he said. "But there was a time when they stopped worrying and started to fight back. So Highlandtown will be OK."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad