Still fun to be Hon? Honfest: Big hair, big controversy

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Shifting through kitschy clothing in Dreamland, the legendary John Waters Baltimore-inspired boutique in Hampden last week, New Mexico transplant and former Charm City resident Connie Murphy had a lot to say about the lingering controversy over the trademarking of the word “Hon.”

“I think the controversy has a negative effect in general, it’s sort of absurd to say you own the word that has so much meaning here,” she said.

A colloquialism turned marketing juggernaut by Café Hon owner Denise Whiting, the term that personifies a bygone Baltimore era of style and panache which evolved into true if not tired cultural shorthand for Bmore’s past charms, has been mired in controversy since Whiting admitted she had trademarked it last year.

Since then, criticism of Whiting has been fierce, particularly after she claimed the sole right to slap a “Welcome to Baltimore Hon”  salutation on everything from T-shirts to stickers, a stance that has not gone unnoticed among the shoppers and merchants of one of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods.

“I definitely picked up on it even though I don’t live here anymore,” said 25-year-old graduate student Murphy, who just earned her Master of Fine Arts Degree from New Mexico State University. 

The native Baltimorean, who was back in Hampden for a post-graduation visit, said the ongoing drama over who owns “Hon” was hard to reconcile with the queries she gets from New Mexico residents curious about the significance of the "Welcome to Baltimore Hon" sticker on her car.

“People in New Mexico always ask me about it and what it means, so it’s something more than property," she said.  

Now as Whiting prepares for the 18th annual Honfest — known as the best place to try on a foot-high Beehive and soak up the spirit of all things Hon-related — the feeling among shop owners and shoppers like Murphy is mixed about just how much impact the fight over a word will have on the festival and the bohemian blue-collar élan that make Hampden unique.

“It’s not like I’m going to stop supporting local stuff,” said Murphy, “but that doesn’t mean I agree with the idea of owning it.”

Hampden patrons like Murphy and business owners alike say they admire Whiting’s deft marketing of the Hon cachet that has been key to turning the neighborhood into a trendy hotspot today. But the respect for her marketing savvy comes with a sense that the controversy over the word is somehow contrary to its humble origins, a fight that is out of sync with the sense of community that gave Hon its meaning in the first place.

“It’s something you would say when you go to work or see someone on the street. It doesn’t really make any sense to say you own it, how can you?” said Charles Nichols, who has lived in Hampden for nearly 50 years.

“I think it’s stupid,” said 21-year-old Paige Oprin as she walked along 36th street.  “Some of my friends work there (at Café Hon), and I think it’s just gotten out of hand.”

Even so, she said her antipathy would not prevent her from attending the festival.

“I’m still going,” she said 

To be sure, festivalgoers like Oprin were firm in their belief that when all was said and done, people would still attend Honfest. 

“Look what she has done for the neighborhood.  I don’t think you’d have all these people coming here and all these businesses if it weren’t for her,” argued lifelong resident Cara Cunningham, a Loyola University Maryland cafeteria worker. “She’s a good woman.”

 Whiting wasn’t helped this week when the Baltimore Sun reported that a memo had been sent to Hampden storeowners that forbade selling of Hon-related items like signature “cat’s eye” sunglasses during the festival. The memo also required merchants to discourage discussing religion and politics.

 “It might be going a little too far,” said Dreamland owner Maurice Lease. “But I think it costs like $7,000 just to clean up after the festival, so there’s a lot of money involved in putting on this festival that she has to cover, that has to be considered.”

Lease, who plans to work in the Beehive hairdo tent where he will help festivalgoers hoist their hair a foot above their head, said he supports Whiting.  But other Hampden merchants feel they’ve been swept into a fight not of their own making.

 “If they boycott her I really wish they would leave the other merchants alone,” said Shelly Klimm, owner of the New Age store Crystals, Candles & Cauldrons.  “Whatever criticism they have of her they need to realize they’re hurting the other businesses.”

Last year protestors assembled on the corner of 36th Street and Roland Avenue to urge visitors to boycott Café Hon.  But Klimm said their efforts have hurt her business too.

”We noticed a drop in business,” said Klimm, who said she had not discussed her concerns with Whiting.  “I honestly think people are afraid of her. ... She’s a very powerful woman in this city.”

Still, some key players in the world of Hon said they will not be attending, and place the blame squarely on the dispute with Whiting.

 “What Denise has done is very un-Hon like,” said Charlene Osborne, author of the book, "My Year as Baltimore’s Best Hon," who makes public appearances decked in Hon attire under the moniker Blaze Char. “I’m sad to say I’m not going to be there,” she said.

 “I think about a dozen or so Hons are not going to attend because of the controversy,” she added.

For her part, Whiting said she feels the matter has been settled, and that the ongoing drama has had little effect on her business or the upcoming festivities.

“Not that I know of,” said Whiting when asked if any of her businesses including the Café Hon, a store called Hontown or the HonFest itself had been hurt.  “I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t come, other than the heat.”

 Whiting said she expects upwards of 60,000 visitors this year, roughly the same number that attended last year. To critics of her business tactics, she said they fail to take into account the widespread recognition that her efforts to promote the festival brings to both Baltimore and to Hampden.

“We have people attending from all over the world,” she asserted.

Still, some expressed a sense of weariness with the conflict.

“People really need to lighten up,” said Tarot reader Pat Harcarik as she waited for her next client at a table in the back of Crystals, Candles & Cauldrons.

“There’s not enough fun in this town.”

 

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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