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The Nose

What’s in a Name?

Posted 12/22/2004

The Nose noticed recently that Hollins Market, one of the city’s five historic markets run by the Baltimore Public Markets Corp., has had an ATM installed. On its screen a greeting flashes: “Welcome to Holland’s Market.” Talk about a Dutch treat. Then we hopped on the No. 31 bus nearby, and snickered as the automated system that announces stops spelled out “PARKTON STREET” instead of the proper spelling, Parkin Street, as it passed the stop near the B&O Railroad Museum. The street sign for Stockton Street, at the corner of Lombard Street, is misspelled “Stocton St.” And at the entrance to Hollins Place, a rehab center on Poppleton Street operated by Baltimore Behavioral Health, the sign reads “Hollin Place.”

Such mistaken labels strike the Nose as funny, and make us want to bark out, “Who’s responible?” (in deference to a bygone City Paper item of the same name, which featured photos of misspelled local signage, that used to run regularly in the 1980s).

Then there are the references to things in the Hollins Market neighborhood that no longer exist. The web site for Baltimore Brewing Co. (www.
degroens.com) includes a list of establishments that carry its products. On the list are three Hollins Street concerns—Akira, Tom Thumb, and Gypsy’s Café—that shuttered long ago.

Don’t expect to find any freshly drawn pints of DeGroens in the neighborhood these days; judging by the alley trash, the area’s appetite is mostly for 40-ouncers. The neighborhood has been in the doldrums since a host of businesses tanked in the 1990s on the heels of the implosions of the nearby public-housing high-rises and the neighborhood’s designation as a federal Empowerment Zone, intended to spur job creation. The street-drug trade got busier, drug-treatment centers grew, and homes went vacant or became group dwellings for addicts in rehab. Bad omens for the neighborhood continued over the last several years, as Carrollton Bank closed its flagship office in the neighborhood and Oriole Hardware on West Baltimore Street shut its doors.

Despite the dearth of positive changes, real-estate prices have grown lately with speculation about the impact of the under-construction UMD BioPark nearby, and scaffolding has been installed at scattered sites—an optimistic sign.

The potential for redevelopment makes the labeling lapses more relevant, though, since consistent neighborhood branding helps prospective investors and real-estate promoters feel they’re onto something. Thus, the Nose is amused by the banners that grace the streets proclaiming Hollins Market to be something called SOWEBO. Such a name appears nowhere on the city’s neighborhood maps, nor is it used by the local neighborhood associations. Casual questions to passersby on West Baltimore Street, where the banners hang on the streetlights on the 1000 block and westward for several blocks, garnered only shrugs from all but one old-timer who knowingly explained that the name is an abbreviation for South West Baltimore.

The Nose, of course, knows what SoWeBo stands for, and we know what it was—a phenomenon, a state of mind, if you will, but never an actual neighborhood. Starting in the 1980s, artists were drawn to the area, and the newbies coined the term SoWeBo to capture their frontier spirit, artistic camaraderie, and real-estate-value aspirations. The label is still affixed to an annual festival—the SoWeBohemian Arts Festival, which takes place every May—but the idea that the tag applies accurately to the long-standing Hollins Market and Union Square neighborhoods, the Nose feels, was always a figment of scenesters’ imaginations. Most of the SoWeBo folks left when the ‘hood fell on hard times, but the few who remain still tend to say they live in SoWeBo. Their neighbors, for the most part, remain befuddled by the term.

Not that the SoWeBo label was never formalized. In fact, state records show four registered trade names and three businesses that use it. The trade names “SoWeBo” and “SoWeBohemian Festival,” registered by former Mencken’s Cultured Pearl restaurateur Teddy Getzel, lapsed in 2001. “SoWeBo Arts, Inc.” is an ongoing concern overseen by William Adler, a long-time Union Square resident, landlord, and arts promoter (www.soweboarts.org). “SoWeBo Bytes”—a word play that gave the Nose a good chuckle—is an active trade name held by an Adler tenant. “SoWeBo Center for Justice, Inc.” is a legal clinic operating out of Viva House, a poverty-battling charity. And “SoWeBo Suds” is a lapsed trade name that once was affixed to a beer-tap at Gypsy’s Café.

So, “who’s responible” for the banners? According to Baltimore Development Corp. development officer David Garza, the city put them up at the prompting of a local merchant. The banners were the brainchild of the founder of the only other SoWeBo business name in the state records: “SoWeBo Merchants Association, Inc.,” started in 1999 by Arnold Blumberg, former proprietor of the defunct Oriole Hardware. The association went inactive shortly after it formed, and currently owes an overdue tax filing, though it isn’t officially dead yet.

“It’s a neighborhood identifier” intended to help boost redevelopment, Garza says of the banner idea, but “things kind of went south and the area is very challenged.” However, he says, “it is in the very early stages of becoming a neighborhood on the incline.”

If the future’s looking brighter, perhaps it’s an opportune time to decide what the area’s proper name is, then, and get the labels right.

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