Baltimore hates the big-spending Yankees, but some residents grew attached to another juggernaut from New York.
For decades PepsiCo, headquartered in Purchase, New York, operated a bottling plant in the Hampden neighborhood, and since 1969, a sign with the soda maker’s logo stood tall next to a stretch of Interstate 83.
The plant closed in 2011, but the sign remained.
Given its proximity to an area of the highway known for its big curves and many crashes, the Pepsi sign became something of a local shorthand for a place of frequent gridlock and destruction.
Nevertheless, it was also a familiar and beloved landmark for drivers, which is why many were saddened to learn the sign — which had been reduced to tatters by the elements and, perhaps, other unknown forces — had been replaced with advertising for the new name of a mixed-use complex at the site, Plant 83.
“PUT IT BACK,” one commenter said on The Banner’s Instagram account.
“I’m in Hampden I’ll hang the original on my roof forever if someone finds it,” offered another.
One Twitter user suggested the change made by developer Himmelrich Associates wouldn’t take: “Good grief. Whose brilliant idea was it to give it a name no one will ever use? It’s going to be ‘the Pepsi sign’ until the end of time — how does Himmelrich not know this?”
For others, there was an element of nostalgia, such as a commenter who remembered seeing the sign from their bus ride to school and this Twitter user whose father once worked for Pepsi at the facility:
In keeping with that spirit, a couple Baltimore Banner staffers reflected on the Pepsi Sign and its place in Baltimore lore.
Bright lights, big city
As a kid growing up in northern Baltimore County, my first exposure to the city came through school field trips, dinners at Harborplace and games at the then-new Oriole Park at Camden Yards, when the ballpark was sold out night after night and we secured tickets through a family connection breaking up an 81-game home plan.
It was exciting to head down from the outer suburbs to be among the crowds downtown, see the tall buildings and familiar landmarks, and watch Cal Ripken Jr., but the drive itself is rather dull at the start. Even after crossing the city-county line on Interstate 83, that first stretch of highway in Baltimore is relatively woodsy as you pass by Mount Washington, Cross Keys and the forest surrounding the Cylburn Arboretum. Then you go under Cold Spring Lane and round a corner — suddenly, the landscape is filled with rowhomes, centuries-old mill complexes and industrial buildings. This is a city.
There was an old Sears warehouse (now Union Collective), the former Schenuit Rubber Factory with its distinctive smokestack (torn down to make way for a self-storage facility), and yes, the brightly lit Pepsi sign above the soda company’s bottling plant in Hampden. Back then, the video display board beneath the company’s red, white and blue logo actually worked and flashed the time of day and temperature.
After a series of curves, the highway takes you around the perimeter of Druid Hill Park and offers an expansive view of the built environment, including the first glimpses of downtown skyscrapers.
When your world is confined to home, school, shopping malls, and wherever else you can get your parents to drive you, making this trip into Baltimore seemed like a big deal. And, for me at least, that feeling didn’t sink in until I reached the area of the Jones Falls Valley with the Pepsi sign.
The waiting is the hardest part
When I first moved to Baltimore, I had two main travel goals: don’t get hit by a car and don’t cause a crash at the Pepsi sign. Within a month of living here a car hit me when I was walking home from work, but I’m proud to say I never got into an accident at the Pepsi sign — and I guess now I’ll never get the chance.
It actually took me a few years before I ended up stuck in my first major Pepsi-crash. I was coming back from a photo assignment, heading down I-83 South thinking about how long of a day I’d already had when, all of a sudden nothing but brake lights ahead.
“This’ll pass soon,” I thought for the next hour as it very much did not pass soon. But the other drivers and I made the most of it. I photographed what I could, talked to commuters who sat on their cars to get a better view, and of course I photographed that glorious Pepsi sign: the towering, ominous landmark always present as a warning to drive a little bit slower around the highway’s bends.
Even though it was anti-bird, filled with rows of tiny spikes along the top of its border, I’m still going to miss that sign.