At HonFest 2006, charm and hairspray are piled high on the Avenue in Hampden


It was the time of year to walk down the Avenue to celebrate the garish glory of being a Baltimore Hon - a riot of leopard skin and hairspray.

In an annual street festival that has blossomed over a dozen years, thousands swarmed Hampden's main shopping district along West 36th Street yesterday for HonFest. The North Baltimore neighborhood, once a tight, blue-collar enclave heavy with Formstone, has lately become the city's center of retro chic.

"Hon," of course, is a kitschy echo of the diners, shops and other haunts where generations of cheerful women in beehive hairdos have greeted customers with "What'll you have, Hon?"

The reference soon defined Baltimore's most endearing and enduring characters - and a crowd police estimated as at least 10,000 turned out to pay homage to them.

Pit beef and crab cakes were served up as old-timers and newcomers strolled by. A statue of Elvis Presley stood amid scores of vendors' booths while Denise Whiting, the owner of Hampden's Cafe Hon and doyenne of the festival, presided over various contests flaunting a nasal "Bawlmer" accent.

Addressing the new city tourist slogan, "Get in on it," Whiting told the crowd that its inventors missed an opportunity. "It should be, 'Get in on it, Hon,'" she said.

Sitting nearby with friends at a sidewalk cafe table was Susan Hodges, 45, decked out in a flowered housedress, green beads, pink slippers and a multicolored bow in her hair. She looked like a character straight out of a John Waters movie - or musical set in a city frozen in time five decades ago.

So arresting was her Hon act that strangers stopped every few minutes to take her picture. Hodges was happy to oblige but said she was just warming up for the Best Hon contest.

"I'm working-class and damn proud of that," Hodges said. "Hons are the salt of the earth, a cohesive part of Baltimore. The dialect accentuates it."

For Hodges, it was a day of memories, too, honoring women like her single mother, who groomed dogs for a living and sent her to parochial school in Essex. Hodges said the baby-blue glasses she wore belonged to her mother - a period piece that served as the touchstone of her outfit.

"Their hearts were as big as their bodies," Hodges said of her mother's generation. "And it's something in your blood or mother's milk." Hodges switched in and out of Honspeak as she greeted passers-by. "My mother tried to squash it out of me, but she failed miserably, Hon," she said.

Elsewhere in the neighborhood, three sisters and a brother, ranging in age from 54 to 70, decided to drop by for the nostalgia. "Our grandmother lived across the street where the American flag is," said Roberta Marye of Finksburg, pointing across Roland Avenue.

Then there were newcomers to Hampden. David Hoffman, 35, a Washington resident who came to visit a high school friend, said retro culture is alive and well here. "I was in Baltimore [Friday] for about 15 minutes before I was called 'Hon,'" he recalled.

His friend, John Shin, 36, of Federal Hill, held his baby daughter Natalie, who slept peacefully through the "Hokey Pokey" during the best young Hon - or Honette - Contest.

"Who are the parents that let their girls get so dolled up?" Hoffman said.

"Maybe me someday!" Shin responded.

Two blocks away, Michal Makarovich, owner of an antiques shop named Hampden Junque, helped Alexander Chriss, 16, add to his collection of 1960s records. "This is one of my favorite days of the year," Chriss said.

Makarovich said the small-town flavor of Hampden has remained during the 12 years since his shop replaced a hardware store - and an urban renaissance surged around the Avenue.

At the end of the day, Hodges' wish came true. She was named "Best Hon" by a three-judge panel. The honor entitles her to a shopping spree and to ride in a parade.

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