Despite the August heat that reached into the mid-90s and threatening rainstorm clouds, thousands of people attended the 16th annual Baltimore International Festival and Mayor's Cup soccer tournament to celebrate Baltimore's cultural diversity.
Held Aug. 6-7 at the Poly/Western fields, the 16th annual event showcased about 40 vendors representing Thailand, Korea, the Caribbean, Trinidad-Tobego, Africa and Mexico, among other nations.
Alvin Gillard, chairman of the festival, said he was "encouraged about folks embracing the concept of the festival" this year
"While the entertainment is great, the mission of the festival is to create an opportunity for folks to come together and to celebrate those things we have in common and not be polarized about what's different," he said. "The challenge for us always is to enhance the diversity and make sure everyone understands that no matter where you're from, there's a place for you."
The amount of vendors has grown since its inception in 1995 as a "learn about your co-workers" initiative by the Baltimore Office of Personnel.
Gillard, then director of the Office of Personnel, thought it would be a good idea for city employees to come to work in their native clothing as a means to promote greater unity and respect among employees, and an opportunity to learn more about the colleagues they worked alongside every day.
Gillard said it went so well that the city decided to turn it into a one-day celebration open to all city residents. Orginally held in front of City Hall, the event grew annually and was moved to Power Plant Live downtown, and then back to the City Hall plaza, before it was finally moved to its current location at Poly/Western High School, at Cold Spring Lane and Falls Road off Interstate 83.
This year's festival featured carnival games and two moonbounces, and vendors selling jewelry, soap and purfumes, sunglasses, bracelets and necklaces, flower wreaths, purses and traditional African clothing. Representatives of the city were also on hand to talk about government services.
Food stalls included everything from pretzel crab cakes to oxtail, Jamaican jerk chicken, curry chicken, plaintains, beans and rice, fried fish and tacos, soul food, funnel cakes and sno cones.
The festival drew those from the Baltimore-area, such as Marta Friedman and her family, who happened to drive by the school Sunday afternoon and decided to stop to see what was going on.
"This is our first time visiting the festival," she said, "and we're really excited about looking at the international crafts on display and listening to the music."
For other families, it was a day trip.
Jim and Denise Lodico, of Annapolis, brought son Camden, 6, and daughter Sophia, 8, not just to celebrate cultural diversity, but Denise's birthday, too.
"We thought we'd try something different," Jim Lodico said as he shared a crab pretzel with his children. Denise was looking forward to the Maracus bake and shark dish she had ordered.
At the far end of the field was the seventh annual Mayor's Cup tourney, featuring 20 teams from the Baltimore area and surrounding regions representing their native countries. The main motivation amongst the teams was to knock off five-time reigning champion Cameroon, according to Betsy Gardner, chairwoman of the tournament.
"It's really tight right now," she said Sunday afternoon, during the semifinal matches.
Ultimately, the Cameroon team took home the trophy for the sixth time, beating out a Caribbean team by a score of 2-0. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake personally presented the trophy.
"The Caribbean team was very disappointed," Gardner said. "They thought they could take it away, but (Cameroon is) just a strong team."
On the way to the championship, Cameroon eliminated a United States team in the quarter-finalsby a score of 2-0.
"This is probably the best soccer of the seven years we've had this tournament," Gardner said. "The weather, the team, we've had minimal injuries (and) good sportsmanship," she said.
Gardner said her phone at work rang nonstop in the days leading up to the tournament, with additional teams wanting to get in on the action. Spectators also came from as far as New York, she said, estimating that at least 1,000 people had attended the soccer matches.
Gardner said the tournament was an example of what the festival is all about.
"It really unifies the diversity of Baltimore," she said. "They come all this was just for this. There's no prize money.