I chose my neighborhood based on how cool its website looks. That’s how I fell in love with Hampden, Baltimore’s former mill town turned hipster headquarters. Its online persona looked way too cool to be racist.
Locally owned restaurants, chic boutiques, quirky wine shops? What’s a little history of KKK activity and heavy meth use when there’s a cupcake shop around the corner? Cupcakes equal not racist. So Hampden’s website had me hooked despite other online red alerts, warning me against moving to a place where only 3.5 percent of the population is black.
"I can't speak on the racism first hand but Hampden is known as the white neighborhood and its isolation has helped keep it this way,” warned a Yelper.
Thing is Hampden wasn’t just “the white neighborhood,” it was the neighborhood people who look like me avoided. Up until the 1970s, the Ku Klux Klan made regular appearances, and as recently as 1987, Hampden made headlines when a black family moved after their windows were smashed in, but I was determined to move in and challenge the the neighborhood’s resume of racial hatred. That, and I’m a sucker for sun-drenched bedrooms, exposed brick, duck confit tacos and a $500 month-to-month lease.
So I wasn’t going to let Hampden’s dark past keep me from the hipster side of Baltimore, and after a week of diligent Craigslist searching, I moved into a rowhouse with a hipster librarian, and thus, became the first black person to live in Hampden.
Actually that’s not fair. It’s not like I was the only black person in sight. Every day, a crowd of black middle schoolers wearing neon-colored hoodies, oversized spectacles and crazy-tight jeans gathered in front of the 7-Eleven to wait for the bus, as did weary black seniors. There was also a Malian man who owned the Halal restaurant down the street, but I think he lived nearby in Druid Hill Park, which is predominantly black.
Still for the entire four months I lived in Baltimore, I never saw another black adult who actually lived in Hampden.
“You know you live in the white neighborhood, right?” my friend asked one day when she picked me up for a ‘buppie’ happy hour in downtown Baltimore.
“I know,” I sighed, all too familiar with the question slash declaration. “I like it, it works for now.”
Hampden’s overwhelming whiteness didn’t scare me, because I’m used to living in places where most of my neighbors don’t look like me. I grew up in the notorious Dove Springs, which is more than 85 percent Latino. When I whipped out the Spanish, “mis vecinos” asked in delighted awe if I was Panamanian. In college, I was one of three black residents in my dorm. Ironically years later, I had the most hassle on the street living in Cuba and Ghana, where I could disappear into the crowd with ease.
I wasn’t convinced that passing up on the benefits of a place where you’d rather live was worth living in a place where you completely blend in. After a while, I got tired of people telling me which neighborhood I was supposed to feel more comfortable in. And in the end I felt plenty comfortable walking the streets of Hampden past the tough-looking, loud-talking tattooed white guys or the old white men in front of the post office. My windows never got smashed in and no one tried to chase me out of the neighborhood with a flaming cross. But even these facts, according to some, were based on what I looked like.
“People don’t mess with you because you’re pretty,” argued one of my roommate’s friends as we sat around debating whether and to what degree Hampden was a racist neighborhood. “When I walk home at night in this neighborhood, I am completely freaked out,” she continued.
This woman, who was black with a white boyfriend, recounted tales of awful things men yelled at her when she walked around at night after hanging out on Hampden’s main strip, The Avenue. And for the record I think she’s gorgeous, but according to her my looks were what saved me from a regular gauntlet of racial insults. It sounds utterly ridiculous, shallow, superficial and just plain silly -- but I did see her point.
On afternoon walks to the post office, old white men always smiled, often complimenting me on my looks in that half-creepy half-harmless way so many old men do. Older white women at the bus stop randomly started conversations with me, always mentioning that I was pretty.
“You’re really pretty!” blurted an eight-year-old Hampdenite as I walked by her and her sisters on my way to lunch. They all had wild curly brown hair and freckled olive skin. As far as I could tell they were regular Hampden white girls with regular white Hampden parents who had likely grown up right there in the neighborhood.
“Thank you!” I replied, smiling outwardly and inwardly as I headed to pick up my usual $7.99 Chicken Jalfrezi plate from the Halal restaurant down the street. Clearly Hampden was changing. Maybe I was the one changing it. Three little white girls saw me, a deep brown-skinned woman with natural hair, and saw that I was beautiful. That was something.
And the little white girls on my block had a new compliment waiting every time we came across one another. “Your hair is pretty! We like your jacket!” They were genuinely delighted whenever I said “Hi,” barraging me with curious questions like, “How old are you?” and “What’s that for?” pointing to the iron key I wore on a chain as a necklace. “This is the key to my castle in California,” I told them. They loved it. Just curious little girls.
But somehow is it my so-called prettiness that was neutralizing all the racial tension? Providing me with a kind of beauty buffer against the racially exclusive environment of my neighborhood? I don’t want to believe that only because it’s such a shallow Band Aid on such an ugly wound.
I’ve got other hypotheses. Perhaps in a traditional working class neighborhood like Hampden where historic Mom & Pop shops are being replaced with high-priced boutiques, racial difference is less of a threat than class difference. Perhaps my narrow nose, long hair, and undeniably black skin put them at ease.
Maybe it’s simply because I never acted like an outsider, so the locals just decided I belonged. Perhaps I blinded myself to the occasional hateful glare because acknowledging it would mean that I did, in fact, live in a neighborhood where some of my neighbors’ skin crawled at the sight of mine. Maybe it was a little bit of all of this. Or maybe it was just time for people to ignore imaginary “tracks” and live on whichever side they chose.
After just four months, I left Hampden for my hometown of Austin, where I am now once again one of the 8.1 percent. I love Austin, but I miss Hampden. I don’t know if I paved the way for more new neighbors of color or if I was just the unlikely exception.
What I do know is that I’ll miss all those curious little white girls who looked past whatever barriers were supposed to be between us and called me “pretty.” The little girls who think there’s a castle in California with my name on it.