That’s a wrap, hon. After thirty years of HONfest, the annual gathering is retiring.

News of the festival’s end came in an email sent Wednesday night by Wendy Sites, a HONfest vendor and logistics coordinator. She seemed to blame the amount of work that went into putting on the festival.

“It’s a lot of work. We have elderly parents now and lives change and things change. We thought it was time. Can’t do it all,” Sites wrote. She also thanked Baltimore and vendors for supporting the festival — which attracted thousands with music, food, crafts and vendors — and lauded how much the event had grown over the years.

But the festival also comes to an end after increased criticism about whether it is inclusive and if what it represented was outdated and needed a makeover.

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In one recent incident that sparked controversy, Planned Parenthood of Maryland was denied a vendor table at last year’s festival. The previous owner of Café Hon and founder of HONfest, Denise Whiting, made the call, explaining that the decision was meant to avoid a “hot topic” issue after the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. At the time, Planned Parenthood said it was later told it could participate if it complied with a “gag rule.” After 24 hours of social media debates and reactions, HONfest organizers apologized and allowed the nonprofit to participate.

“This year, our sincere intent was to remain politically neutral and avoid any type of conflict, and in doing so, we inadvertently created the controversy we were desperately hoping to avoid,” a post on the HONfest Facebook page at the time said. “We are deeply sorry and apologize for our decision to exclude your organization.”

Vendors and businesses showed support for the nonprofit by putting up posters or wearing pink T-shirts, but the snafu also empowered people to share their truth, in some cases opposing, feelings about the festival.

One volunteer told The Baltimore Banner that the 30-year festival grew out of a desire to honor the “blue-collar values of Charm City” and working women. Others disagreed, including a Reddit user who wrote, “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.”

A 2010 research paper on HONfest by Mary Rizzo also touched on the inclusiveness of the festival. 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.”

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Several business owners and residents declined to speak publicly about the discontinued HONfest. Two didn’t think it was a loss. One resident said they’d miss the funnel cakes and some of the entertainment, but didn’t support Whiting or how she ran Café Hon because they felt like it wasn’t always inviting of all Hampden residents.

Others were saddened by the news and reminisced about the highly anticipated summertime weekend.

Kristin Wiebe, co-owner of Baltimore Art Gallery, said they looked forward to seeing dressed-up participants through their large storefront windows every year. They enjoyed spotting the Elvis impersonators, participating in the “Baltimore Best Hon Contest” and told people to visit the gallery while they were out and about in the festivities.

“We are sad that it’s over and hope Hampdenfest incorporates stuff from HONfest,” Wiebe said, adding that although retail came to a standstill during HONfest, it was still an opportunity to get customers in the store.

Brittany Parry, owner of Match Made Stores, a women’s clothing store on the Avenue, said the end of HONfest is “sad for the neighborhood.” It brought a lot of people to the shop for the weekend and even throughout the year, she added. Parry hopes the festival will be replaced with something else because “it’s gonna hurt business,” especially if another festival, Hampdenfest, doesn’t come back again this year.

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Hampdenfest was canceled in 2023 because it fell on the same weekend as Artscape, which moved the event to September. Organizers of the event said Baltimore didn’t have the resources to pull off Artscape and other events like theirs.

Shawn Theron has been a vendor with HONfest for over 10 years and comes in a decked out art truck where he sells his paintings.
Shawn Theron has been a vendor with HONfest for over 10 years and comes in a decked-out art truck where he sells his paintings. (Courtesy: Shawn Theron)

Shawn Theron has been a vendor at HONfest for over 10 years and is wondering if there’s a way to keep HONfest alive by pulling a group together to carry it on. During the festival, Theron could be found in his big colorful “SOGH Art Truck” at the corner of Elm Avenue and West 36th Street with his original paintings on repurposed items like doors and cabinets. He partly credits Hampden for being a “launchpad” for his artistry outside of the museum industry, because it was the first festival in which he ever showcased his work.

“When Baltimore falls in love with you, your whole world completely changes,” Theron said.

He added that the city needs anything possible to attract more people and HONfest was a big draw. He knows the festival has had a controversial past, but he’s still shocked and heartbroken by the news.

“I understand the need and want to retire … maybe it would be great if somebody could take it over and continue it and bring fresh new life to it,” Theron said.

Jasmine Vaughn-Hall is a neighborhood and community reporter at the Baltimore Banner, covering the people, challenges, and solutions within West Baltimore. Have a tip about something happening in your community? Taco recommendations? Call or text Jasmine at 443-608-8983. 

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