What do you get when you take a long-running neighborhood festival, a polarizing former Hampden business owner and one of the most controversial issues in America today?
The makings of a firestorm, which happened over the weekend when Planned Parenthood of Maryland announced that the organizer of HonFest, a yearly summertime festival on Baltimore’s West 36th Street, had rejected the group’s vendor application.
Behind the call? Denise Whiting, who previously ran Cafe Hon on the Avenue.
Whiting initially defended the decision on Facebook, expressing the desire to avoid a “hot topic” issue in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Planned Parenthood said they were later told they could participate if they complied with a “gag rule.” Within days, Whiting had apologized, and another local business owner stepped up and agreed to host Planned Parenthood.
But damage has already been done, and the flap has raised questions about the relevance of HonFest, to some a throwback to an era of segregation and racial tensions, at a time when Hampden is becoming both more gentrified and more diverse than ever.
Event volunteer Bonnie Hockstein said the festival started 30 years ago and grew out of a desire to honor the “blue collar values of Charm City” and working women like her own mother, who was a waitress until she was 80 years old.
Over the years, she said, HonFest has changed, reflecting the shifts within the area. Hampden “used to be a very white working class neighborhood,” Hockstein said, and the early years of the festival skewed mostly white. But more and more, organizers are choosing diverse vendors and performers to reflect the larger city. “We’re trying to be inclusive,” she said. “I’m really proud of that.”
But not everyone agrees. “The HonFest being run by Denise has not kept up with our neighborhood,” said Andrew Bruchey, owner of the Avenue’s vintage jewelry shop the Parisian Flea. “I would think the festival would do better without her involved.”
Bruchey had been planning to donate the crown for the “Baltimore’s Best Hon” competition, as he has in years past. But after learning about Whiting’s early decision to exclude Planned Parenthood, he decided instead to auction the piece off as a fundraiser for the organization. Many vendors and local businesses have announced they will donate a portion of their proceeds, too.
“This is probably inadvertently the best fundraiser that Denise Whiting could have ever set up for Planned Parenthood,” Bruchey said. He added that during previous festivals, a pro-life stand was allowed to show graphic imagery depicting terminated fetuses and embryos.
Adding to the fire is decades of frustration in general with Whiting. Years ago, she drew the ire of many in Baltimore when she attempted to trademark the term “hon.” She later apologized in a radio appearance with chef Gordon Ramsay before her Cafe Hon appeared on his TV show “Kitchen Nightmares.”
Bruchey said he felt Whiting apologized for the Planned Parenthood decision only under duress, pointing out that she initially doubled down on her choice. “I truly did not feel like that was a heartfelt change,” he said.
In response, Whiting said, “Everybody’s entitled to their own opinions.”
And not all of those opinions are in favor of HonFest, which is now celebrating its 30-year anniversary.
In a 2010 research paper on HonFest, author Mary Rizzo wrote in the International Journal of Heritage Studies that nostalgia for the “community cohesiveness” can ignore “racism that insured the homogeneity” of neighborhoods like Hampden, and that, as “a white icon, the Hon also erases the heritage of Baltimore’s African‐American majority.”
As one user on Reddit said: “I get it, the beehives and feather boas are fun, but the time period they are reminiscing about wasn’t a good time for many of us.” The commenter added that Hampden “is historically one of the whitest and most racist parts of Baltimore ever since the mill days and it still carries a lot of that baggage.”
Hampden salon owner Lindsay Hall thinks that the “hon” label can feel limiting. “We could maybe get out of the ‘hon’ boxiness” to better reflect the neighborhood, she said.
Hall said she actually thought that Whiting had stepped away from the festival after shutting down her Avenue restaurant last year. When she learned about Whiting’s decision to bar Planned Parenthood, she thought: “We’re taking steps back,” she said. “I think Hampden’s bigger than that.”
Hall typically closes down her business, Flaunt Hair Boutique, during HonFest since the large crowds make it hard to operate as normal. Previously, she has lent the space out during that time to one of her employees, Liz Voorhees, who operates a clothing company. But on Friday, Voorhees alerted her to the news that Planned Parenthood had been rejected from the festival.
“I was totally shocked,” said Hall, pointing out that Planned Parenthood has long had a presence at the event. She quickly reached out to offer up her salon as a space for the organization to work this weekend. The group accepted the invitation — and, in a Smaltimore moment, Hall realized she had done the hair and makeup for a Planned Parenthood staffer on their wedding day.
Hall said her employees, who mostly identify as LGBTQIA, are “so fired up and supportive” of the decision to host the reproductive rights organization. “You know if Planned Parenthood is there, it’s a safe environment for LGBTQIA folk. We’re all supporting the same cause,” she said. Many staff members are hunting down pink clothing and offering to bake pink cookies to match the organization’s signature color — also one featured heavily in the salon. “I’m dying my hair pink,” Hall said.
Hockstein said that since Whiting has apologized, she wished people would give Whiting and HonFest another chance. “Women are community-minded and nurturing by nature,” she said. “To honor women is to forgive and move on.”
That appears to already be happening to some degree. Natasha Guynes, founder and president of the HER Resiliency Center, initially said her organization could no longer sponsor the liquor license for HonFest. (Festivals must have a nonprofit sponsor their liquor license in Baltimore.) But after speaking with both City Councilwoman Odette Ramos and Planned Parenthood late afternoon on Monday, Guynes had a change of heart and decided to support the event’s liquor license.
”Women can support women,” she said. “The community can support women in many different ways.”
Ramos said in a statement that she was asked to revoke the permit for HonFest but felt businesses and vendors shouldn’t suffer because of the incident. She encouraged people to still attend — and to show support for Planned Parenthood by wearing pink.
“I look forward to showing off how proud I am to be pro-choice, to live in Maryland where we protect the right to choose, and to represent residents and businesses who understand that censoring voices is not how we conduct ourselves,” Ramos wrote.