The pink flamingo is Baltimore’s third bird. You’ve probably noticed that. After the Orioles and Ravens, the city identifies most with the long-necked, stick-legged wading bird from the Galapagos.
It doesn’t make much sense. Flamingos are not native to the Chesapeake, they’re tropical. Humid summer days in the Greater Patapsco Drainage Basin can be suffocating, but, still, you’re not going to find a vast colony of flamingos under the Potee Street Bridge.
The great blue heron would have made more sense as a regional icon. But the local culture embraced pink — and you can either blame or credit John Waters for that.
He titled his trashy 1972 film “Pink Flamingos,” he said in an interview, because he had seen a lot of pink flamingos around Baltimore — not the real kind, the plastic kind. Flamingo ornaments stuck in flower pots in front of rowhouses, on the lawns of bungalows and among the shrubs of suburban ranchers. That was once working-class Baltimore’s idea of neighborhood beautification and even social striving. The people who deployed them were not trying to be ironic. That came later.
Over the years, the plastic pink flamingo came to symbolize a bygone Baltimore, and some, including Waters, saw classism in their display: Urban professionals, the new wave of Baltimore residents, mocking the Bawlmerese-speaking natives who came before them.
Some of this was reflected in Waters’ comments about HonFest, Hampden’s annual celebration of the Baltimore he had described in an essay and depicted in film: “The hairdo capital of the world.” In 2008, Waters said he was done with HonFest. “To me, it’s used up,” he told The Sun. “It’s condescending now. The people that celebrate it are not from it. I feel that in some weird way they’re looking slightly down on it.”
I felt the same way, but withheld criticism because the people at HonFest appeared to be having so much fun, and the Hampden merchants seemed to be pleased. I figured it was just a nostalgia trip for some, an excuse to wear some big hair and cat’s eye glasses for others, and a big block party for all.
Denise Whiting at Cafe Hon got all that started. She also made possible the giant pink flamingo, “Big Pink,” that artist Randell Gornowich created and installed above her restaurant in 2002.
Gornowich, a master of turning found objects into objets d’art, made the original from “old bed sheets, tomato cages and leftover plywood.” Some glue, chicken wire and pink latex paint was involved, too.
Big Pink remained affixed to the fire escape above Cafe Hon all these years, challenged by weather and, in 2009, by a city inspector who threatened its removal unless the bird came into compliance with a city ordinance.
The late Glenn McNatt, the Sun’s art critic at the time, exhorted the city to back off and leave Big Pink, as they say in Bawlmerese, “Ay-lone.”
“There’s no need to pretend this long-necked fowl is great art,” McNatt wrote. “It’s pure kitsch, as it was intended to be. Kitsch is the opposite of the complex, difficult, provocative and occasionally infuriating art in museums. It’s art for everyday people going about their everyday business, which is what folks tend to do down on the Avenue in Hampden.”
Big Pink disappeared for a few weeks. Whiting and the city eventually reached a compromise on the compliance issue, and Gornowich remade the three-story bird with fiberglass. The new, improved flamingo returned to its roost.
“I made a $10 bet with John Waters that I could get the mayor of Baltimore to do the Chicken Dance on 36th Street,” Gornowich says, explaining that the mayor at the time, Sheila Dixon, was expected at the official unveiling of the new Big Pink.
Gornowich had a boom box and played the polka-style song, and 80 people, including Dixon, danced the Chicken Dance. He won the bet, and Waters paid up.
That was then, this is now.
Big Pink needs to find a new home.
As we reported recently, Cafe Hon has been sold, and while we do not know the new owner’s plans for the place, they evidently do not include Big Pink. So Gornowich has started to remove it from the building. The head and neck came off first and went into storage.
What Gornowich would like is a public place for it. He’s looking for a new location, preferably in Hampden, where it might still be seen and enjoyed as a landmark. He’s willing to rework it into a three dimensional figure so that it could stand alone as the centerpiece of a park or plaza. He scouted out one location, in Roosevelt Park, where, if installed there, the flamingo could be seen by motorists on the Jones Falls Expressway.
The pink flamingo is Baltimore’s third bird. It’s here to stay, and we should deem Gornowich’s Big Pink a monument to the kitschy part of Baltimore that lives on in brightly colored rowhouses, in planters made from old tires, in the amusing and sometimes shocking homemade art that adorns front windows and stoops.
I’ll leave you with Glenn McNatt’s words from the last time Big Pink needed a champion: “In the contemporary art world anything can be art, including pink flamingos. That’s why Hampden’s Big Bird should be preserved, if only as a memento of a certain wacko sensibility dear to Baltimorean hearts.”