By Aaron Levin
Even a couple of years ago, to most Hopkins students Hampden was unknown territory, best known for the elaborate display of Christ-mas lights that illuminate 34th Street each year. Located just west of the Homewood campus, across Wyman Park, Hampden was founded over a century ago as living space for workers in the mills along the Jones Falls valley; a quick stroll past the Formstone-fronted and brick row houses or along 36th Street, the center of the neighborhood's commercial life, makes its blue collar roots apparent.
But Hampden today is in the midst of transformation: Charming shops, an art gallery and half a dozen new restaurants have sprung up along The Avenue, as residents call 36th Street. Some people in Hampden hope that some people at Hopkins will take a closer look.
"Hampden offers a lot," says Alice Ann Finnerty (pictured at left), who sells antique furniture, china and jewelry at the Turnover Shop on Chestnut Avenue. "It's safe, convenient and there is a variety of shops and restaurants."
Finnerty is also president of the Hampden Village Merchants Association. She's working with the university to organize a weekly college night in Hampden, when merchants could give discounts or restaurants offer a free dessert to students with college IDs. And she'd like to see The Avenue added as a stop on the route of the Hopkins shuttle bus, to encourage students to explore the neighborhood.
Susannah Siger isn't waiting. Siger moved back to Baltimore from San Francisco last June to open Oh Said Rose, a shop on 36th Street selling what she calls "incredible wearables," along with jewelry, and leather handbags painted with beetles and dragonflies. The hot items this spring? "Titanic-inspired stuff-lots of linen and gauzy things," she says.
When she was searching for a business location, Siger was attracted to Hampden's distinctive character and its affordable commercial real estate.
"Hampden has a perfect feel for me," she says. "The neighborhood, the other businesses, even the architecture. It's a place where you can express yourself in a business."
Meanwhile, interns working at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies under the direction of former mayor and governor William Donald Schaefer have taken part in the revitalization of the area.
They've completed a marketing survey, trying to learn what kind of businesses people in the neighborhood want. Among other things, that study led to the blossoming of half a dozen new restaurants. The interns also helped the Hampden Family Center expand GED classes, computer training and afterschool programs.
Now, at lunch or dinner time, students and others drift across Wyman Park to discover both the familiar, like McCabe's or Dimitri's, the Pinebrook, the Coffee Mill or the New System Bakery; and the new, like Holy Frijoles or S'getti, Mamie's, Cafe Hon or the Golden West Cafe.
At S'getti, on Chestnut Avenue near the corner of 36th Street, owner Terri Schiavone produces sandwiches and prepared foods for takeout, and has catered for numerous groups on campus. She's especially pleased, she says, when visitors to Hopkins from Italy praise her selection of delicacies including mozzarella and Parma prosciutto.
Even traditional Hampdenites, she says, are starting to trickle in, a little hesitant at first but finding that they enjoy her Mediterranean offerings once they try them.
Can the old and new Hampdens live together comfortably?
"Many of the old-timers are a little concerned that new development will raise property taxes, but then [the new shops] will leave when things get too expensive," Finnerty admits. But she's betting that that won't happen, and that the economic growth will benefit the neighborhood as well as settling into its center.