Andre Greer wasn’t used to hearing the N-word. Then he opened a business in Hampden.

Since launching Hot Dog Central last fall, Greer estimated, he’s been called the racist epithet four or five times by people who pass by his restaurant on West 36th Street.

“It’s something you think you would see in the Deep South,” said Greer, a native of Michigan who later moved to North Carolina and then Baltimore, where he opened the hot dog restaurant with his partner.

Next door, Charles Lyons said the hostility he’s encountered while running Caribbean fusion spot Jerk Taco has gotten so bad that he’s considering relocating his business to a neighborhood that he views as more diverse and accepting of Black business owners.

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Even as Hampden, a historically white and working-class neighborhood, has grown wealthier and more diverse with an increasing number of Black and minority-owned businesses on its main thoroughfare, Greer, Lyons and their supporters said their experiences suggest that racist elements of “Old Hampden” remain stubbornly entrenched in the area.

Samantha Claassen, owner of Golden West Cafe, said she was horrified to hear about Greer’s experiences when he posted about them on Instagram. “Things like this make it feel like we’re taking a 50-year step back,” she said.

When Golden West opened in 1997, Hampden was home to just a few of the sort of trendy restaurants that now line West 36th Street, called “The Avenue” by local residents. Claassen, who is white and moved to Baltimore in the late 1990s, remembers a friend warned her about the neighborhood’s reputation for racism. The Ku Klux Klan organized there in the 1980s; the FBI got involved after a Black family moved in and the windows of their home were smashed.

Since then, Claassen believes, “the neighborhood has changed for the better in so many ways.” Black patrons regularly frequent restaurants on the Avenue. Two new Black-owned restaurants, Corkscrew and the Urban Oyster, are launching on the street. Yet to some Black Baltimoreans, the neighborhood retains its racist image. Greer said he often hears from people who tell him they won’t set foot there. “We get it all the time,” he said.

“Hampden has changed a lot, but there may be some people who have not,” said Baltimore City Councilwoman Odette Ramos, whose district includes part of the neighborhood. Instances like the harassment of Hot Dog Central and Jerk Taco demonstrate that “we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”

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Other Black business owners have also reported a hostile reception. Before she opened Tia’s, her Italian ice shop in Hampden in 2022, Tia Asamoah, who moved to Baltimore from Philadelphia, remembers hearing some guys on the street making snide comments: “Another ice cream shop? You’ll be out of business in six months.” She’s still in business more than a year later, but “sometimes we feel like we are not welcome here,” she said. “I know it will take a while to gain people’s trust.”

Both Greer and Lyons said neighbors have called in 311 complaints in what they believe is an attempt to sabotage their respective businesses. In an Instagram post last week, Greer shared that someone called police with a noise complaint after Hot Dog Central hosted an Oct. 7 event — for which it had a permit — just outside the restaurant. “[T]he hate toward the minority businesses continues,” he wrote.

More recently, an anonymous caller told the health department that Greer had been using a grill outside the restaurant. According to the complaint, which Greer also posted to Instagram, the restaurant left unattended and lit grills burning at all hours. Nonsense, said Greer — the grill was for special events only, and was cool when a health inspector arrived.

Someone also filed a complaint against Jerk Taco’s outdoor grill, which Lyons said he’s been using for three years without incident. Whoever made the call also alleged that Lyons left the grill on by itself throughout the day, which Lyons denied doing. According to an Oct. 24 report from the health department, though, an inspector did find an unattended charcoal grill outside the restaurant and shut down the eatery for “creating a fire hazard,” among other offenses. The restaurant was cleared to reopen the following day.

To Lyons, it felt like just the latest attack — another sign that he and his business aren’t welcome in the area. Months ago, he and Greer noticed a racist comment on the Citizen app about an incident up the street. “Should’ve never let those [emoji of a brown face]’s in hampden,” the person said.

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To Greer, the most astonishing thing is how little such comments seem to surprise longtime Baltimoreans. A common response? “That’s Hampden.”

People walk down W 36th Street in Hampden under the shade of trees.
People walk down West 36th Street in Hampden on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2023. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

As a gay Black man, Greer said, he feels he’s been doubly targeted. Just before the health inspector’s visit, Greer’s car, which has a sticker for the hot dog shop on the bumper, was vandalized, its window shattered. He said he’s been called homophobic slurs, and a Pride flag outside the restaurant was torn down. (This is not the first instance in which Greer, who also goes by the last name Chaney, has reported being a target of racism. In 2019, he told North Carolina police that he received a letter peppered with racial slurs, threatening his chicken eatery.)

Claassen reached out to Greer after he posted recently about his experiences on social media. She has been brainstorming ways to support Hampden’s minority-owned businesses in the face of harassment. “We can’t look the other way,” she said. “Ending segregation in Baltimore should not be falling on the shoulders of one hot dog man,” she said.

Ramos said mental health and substance issues may play a role in some of the attacks on small businesses such as Greer’s and Lyons’. “I would be very sad if people who are doing this from ‘Old Hampden’ are of the right mind,” she said.

Whatever the cause, business owners say the harassment is grinding them down. Both Lyons and Greer are exploring new spaces for their restaurants like Greenmount Avenue, which they say is more diverse and welcoming to Black business owners. When asked by The Baltimore Banner if Lyons saw a future for Jerk Taco at its current location, he was blunt: “Not really.”

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For now, Greer, who has over three years left on his lease at West 36th Street, is determined to persevere. He’s begun meeting with elected officials including Ramos and Councilman James Torrence. He’s encouraged by the support of people like Claassen, and customers who have come to support his and Lyons’ restaurants since they posted on Instagram about their struggles.

“Old Hampden, you’re not going to win,” he said. “We’re not going anywhere.”

This article has been updated.

christina.tkacik@thebaltimorebanner.com

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