It was pouring rain when my fiancé and I finally donned our rain gear and headed down to “The Avenue” last month for the annual HampdenFest sponsored by the Hampden Village Merchants Association. The headline event is local artist Steve Baker’s annual “Toilet Bowl Races,” which run down Chestnut Avenue from West 36th Street, ending at Falkenhan’s Hardware.
As the rain pelted our jackets, we joined hundreds of eager spectators already lined up to cheer on the racers, including an entry driven by Police Major Rich Gibson and his Northern Police District Team. I was surprised to see him; in previous years he had volunteered at the Hampden Community Council’s dunk tank. But alas, he has graduated to the main card.
The Toilet Bowl Races are Hampden’s version of the American Visionary Arts Museum’s Kinetic Sculpture Races. Competitors build their own race vehicles featuring elaborately decorated and finely engineered toilet bowls on wheels, then race one another down a gently sloping hill. It’s one of those silly things that truly make Baltimore, as the benches say, the Greatest City in America.
As race time neared, Major Gibson and his team stood stoically at the starting line next to their entry, an elongated pink scooter with a toilet bowl mounted on top and two PVC exhaust pipes shooting from the rear. I immediately grew concerned. “Is Major Gibson really going to ride that? It doesn’t even have brakes!” I said to myself. “We can’t let him hurt himself, we need him!”
Despite the perpetual rain that has plagued our City for months he and his team held their ground.
As we elbowed our way toward a spot along the race course, Major Gibson took off. He sailed down the course, and I joined in as the crowd erupted in cheers of encouragement and recalled their own personal and positive experiences with the commander. One young man next to me exclaimed, “That’s Major Gibson. When I got robbed, he came to my house, he was amazing.”
So many others had similar stories to share because Major Gibson has made himself a fixture in the neighborhood, faithfully attending community meetings, birthdays, crime walks, funerals, festivals and even Toilet Bowl Races. Neighbors know their concerns will never be ignored, and they repay Major Gibson by helping him with crucial crime information — which he acknowledges and acts on without delay.
This is community policing at its best. Major Gibson is a commander who replies to our emails, answers his phone calls and responds to torrents of Facebook messages. By doing so, he gives us the confidence that our pleas for help are heard and will be followed-up effectively. In return, the neighborhood feeds the Northern District tips about who is doing what, where and when, and even sometimes why.
Thanks to the police and community partnership of Northern District’s leadership, we can all safely gather by the hundreds on a rainy Saturday afternoon to celebrate the comparable mobility of personalized toilet bowls and the confidence that our safety comes first in the neighborhood where we live.
As Major Gibson ascended the hill, one of his fellow officers met him with a smile; she was beaming with pride. And when he passed me, I wiped tears from my eyes, because I saw hope in him for the city.
Despite what I see in the news, I know that the Baltimore City Police Department has hundreds of actual and potential Major Gibsons who are invested and involved in their communities and aren’t afraid to let their hair down once in a while to celebrate the positive relationships we rely on to restore safety across Baltimore City.
Stephanie Murdock is the legislative director for the office of Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.