HON: Past, Present, & Future
Pub Date: March 31, 2011
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The word Hon, as an abbreviation of the word honey, is hardly unique to Baltimore. Indeed, in cities all along the Eastern Seaboard, and beyond, you will find the term employed with varying degrees of affection, from the waitress pouring coffee to the mother addressing her child.
Hon, in fact, is everywhere.
Yet many who live here regard this colloquialism as intrinsic to Baltimores character as the Orioles, painted screens and Old Bay. For them, the word, as much as anything, harkens back to the city of their youth. The city of their mothers, sisters, aunts and grandmothers - strong, predominantly white working-class women whose memories forever call them home to a past as resilient to the erosive ravages of time as the marble steps of an East Baltimore rowhouse.
Hon - an ages old local salutation and term of endearment with roots in the citys southern predilections - is not only considered common property by generations of Baltimoreans but a birthright, writes native son Rafael Alvarez. [Alvarez, Rafael. Robert Irsay in a Dress. northbaltimore.patch.com 31 Dec. 2010.]
But not everyone pines for those rose-colored days. Indeed, for some, Hon evokes quite a different Baltimore: one of blatant racism and segregation. One in which, some claim, that same waitress in addressing a black patron as Hon did not have to call him Sir.
This complexity of character no doubt inspired Baltimore filmmaker John Waters, whose body of work - most notably, the 1988 comedy Hairspray - is rife with Hons: tough-talking house fraus fiercely devoted to family and whatever they believe to be right. The late drag queen Divine, an integral fixture in Waters earlier work, often depicted these women through comically grotesque representations: loud-print housecoats and dresses, beehive hairdos and outdated eyeglasses.
Over the years, Waters - who grew up in Lutherville, just north of Baltimore (read: outside the city) - has been criticized for his outrageous depictions of a culture from which he himself was not born. But cities, by their very nature, are dynamic creatures - they must be, like the great white shark, always on the move, lest they perish; to be sure, todays Baltimore is not that of the previous generation, nor was theirs the Baltimore their parents knew. Gone, for the most part, is the thriving commercial port upon which the town was built. Gone, also, are its attendant blue-collar industries, having fled for infinitely cheaper, foreign shores. In their stead, an influx of new blood - young urban professionals spending untold fortunes to inhabit spaces originally built for local shipwrights, longshoremen and laborers. Ousting generations from the only place theyve ever called home. Or, worse - nothing....just block upon desolated block of rowhouses, drugs, violence and despair now their only inhabitants.
Baltimore still has its Hons, but today, many of them live beyond the city limits, in places like Dundalk, Essex or Parkville. And today, many in Baltimore find in Waters work something that, I think, was always there: a certain connection to and (albeit tongue in cheek) celebration of a cultural heritage that at one time regarded him as nothing short of its own downfall
Few will dispute that Café Hon, a kitschy restaurant in the citys Hampden neighborhood, all but owes its existence to Waters outrageously tacky interpretations of the Baltimore Hon. The giant pink flamingo that adorns the front of the restaurant is, inasmuch, an open admission of that.
The brainchild of local businesswoman Denise Whiting, Café Hon occupies prime real estate on West 36th Street, or The Avenue, as its locally known - Hampdens Main Street. The Avenue once housed all the day-to-day necessities of a blue-collar mill town: grocery stores, restaurants, barber shops, pharmacies, shoe-repair shops and the like. But in a scene all too familiar to many cities, the neighborhood fell into decline as its industrial lifeblood either dried up or moved elsewhere.
By the early 1990s, the area had begun to attract the so-called creative class - artists, writers, actors, musicians, etc. - with its affordable housing. Predictably, the creative sorts were, in time, followed by business-minded people seeking to capitalize on the burgeoning scene. Among them was Whiting, who first established Café Hon in 1992, with an emphasis on simple, diner-like fare.
Two years later, Whiting held a contest for Baltimores Best Hon, and with that HonFest was born. Held in early June, the annual street festival - ostensibly a celebration in honor of Baltimores working-class women - has grown into a three-day spectacle of people, food, music and, of course, the Baltimores Best Hon contest, in which contestants try to out-Hon one another by donning such outlandish garb as faux-leopard print, feather boas and cat-eye glasses.
Though HonFest indisputably pumps outside dollars into the community, it has its critics. Many residents curse the crowds, their trash, the noise, the impossibility of cramming all those visiting cars into an urban neighborhood that can scarcely contain the ones that already live there. Moreover, rather than interpreting it as celebration, some fundamentally damn the whole thing as crass exploitation, even mockery, of a blue-collar culture that can no longer afford to live there - one having little in common with the tourists and county residents who patronize HonFest.
Today, the Avenue remains Hampdens center of commerce, only its storefronts now house boutique art galleries, coffee shops, spas, gift stores and restaurants. Meanwhile, Whitings Hon-pire has grown to include a candy and souvenir store selling mass-produced merchandise stamped with her logo: a UN-inspired euro oval featuring a white background and black border, surrounding bold black type - not unlike those stickers adorning the back-ends of Volvos and Saabs advertising vacation spots like North Carolinas Outer Banks or Marthas Vineyard. Only instead of OBX or MV, Whiting has tailored the image to her own end: HON
Downtown Partnership spokesman Mike Evitts shared the sentiment of many Baltimoreans upon learning that Denise Whiting had obtained a commercial trademark - several, in fact - for the word Hon.
Are you kidding? You cant do that, Evitts told Baltimore Sun reporter Jill Rosen in an article dated December 9. Thats like trade-marking the word sweetheart. In the civic sense, its un-ownable. Its not something you can litigate over; its a state of being. [Rosen, Jill. Sorry, Hon, Its Trademarked: Café Owner Owns Rights to Word. The Baltimore Sun 9 Dec. 2010.]
Nevertheless, she had done just that. Whiting, in fact, had been collecting federal trademarks since 1992 (beginning with her Café Hon logo). However, though a matter of public record, her actions had remained below the public radar for years .that is, until a December 8, 2010, article in The Baltimore Messenger, a community newspaper catering to the citys north side, in which she discussed the opening of her souvenir store:
It wasnt long before the proverbial shit hit the fan. Online comment boards exploded with local outrage: How could the US Patent and Trademark Office have possibly approved a trademark for a work thats long been a part of the public lexicon? And why would someone even think of doing it in the first place? The news quickly tore across social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
In the coming days, Whiting did little to improve her public image.
People are going to be mad, she told The Baltimore Sun. People are going to be mad they didnt think of it themselves There will be those that think its a brilliant marketing campaign and get it. There will be people that just get mad and wont be able to comprehend. [Rosen, Jill. Sorry, Hon, Its Trademarked: Café Owner Owns Rights to Word. The Baltimore Sun 9 Dec. 2010.]
In a follow-up article, Whiting told the Messenger that she would not go after everybody that uses the word hon.
But, the article continued, she said that if people try to sell merchandise with her trademarked oval logo on it, Ill sue their pants off. [Perl, Larry. Café Hon Owner Defends Herself Against Criticism That She Trademarked the Word Hon for Financial Gain. The Baltimore Messenger 12 Dec. 2010.]
Shes not trying to suggest that people cant use the word Hon; its that they cant sell things using the word Hon, Kathryn Miller Goldman, Whitings attorney, told The Baltimore Sun. People cant take her mark and put it on their goods. [Rosen, Jill. Sorry, Hon, Its Trademarked: Café Owner Owns Rights to Word. The Baltimore Sun 9 Dec. 2010.]
Of course, no reasonable person would fault Whiting for protecting that which she had worked so hard to build - namely, Café Hon and HonFest. But if her intentions were indeed limited to her restaurant and street festival, as she maintained, why had the Maryland Transit Administration been compelled to seek her approval for its Hon ad campaign, which made no direct reference to either of Whitings business ventures? Nor is the MTA, upon last examination, in the business of selling sweatshirts and shot glasses. Never mind The Baltimore Suns report that when a local nonprofit organization wanted to have a Hon-themed fundraiser, [Whiting] only charged them $25. [Rosen, Jill. Sorry, Hon, Its Trademarked: Café Owner Owns Rights to Word. The Baltimore Sun 9 Dec. 2010.] Many perceived Whitings actions as an attempt to commercially monopolize something - a word, an image, a state of being - that belonged to all of Baltimore. Something that had been there long before the swank art spaces and Mini Coopers, long before Café Hon.
She didnt invent Hon, Stephen Yasko, General Manager of Towson Universitys WTMD-FM, wrote in a December 12 online editorial. She found it, sculpted it, and turned it into something that makes money. [Yasko, Stephen. A Statement from Our GM About the Trademarking of the Word Hon. wtmd.blogspot.com 12 Dec. 2010.]
In a December 20 editorial in The Daily Record, attorney James B. Astrachan, a partner in the Baltimore firm of Astrachan Gunst Thomas Rubin and an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, wrote:
And so the Internet flame wars raged on; one Facebook group, No One Owns Hon, Hon, surpassed the for-real Café Hon page in its number of fans within a matter of days. A handful of demonstrations were staged outside Café Hon. Non-Baltimore news outlets like National Public Radio and The Orlando Sentinel picked up the story. And then there were the comment boards on various news sites that in no time at all, as is so often the case, devolved into vitriolic personal attacks.
The whole matter came to a would-be head in early January 2011, when Bruce Goldfarb, a local writer and proprietor of the website www.WelcometoBaltimoreHon.com, threw down the gauntlet by issuing a 2,700-word Hon Manifesto in which he outlined a plan to sell mugs bearing the word Hon (though not in Whitings exact style) online.
It appears that the only way the issue will be resolved is in court, wrote Goldfarb. Somebody has to put the bell on the cats collar, to pose a test case to resolve the issue once and for all. [Goldfarb, Bruce. The Hon Manifesto. welcometobaltimorehon.com 4 Jan. 2011.] By that logic, he reasoned, Whiting would be left only two choices: to litigate the issue and risk losing her claim on what many consider an already weak trademark, or do nothing and risk trademark dilution.
Perhaps sensing that she had overplayed her hand, Whitings camp issued a press release on January 19 in which she apologized for creating the impression that I can stop people from using the word, and for causing such an outcry here. The same press release included a statement from Ned T. Himmelrich, an attorney for Whiting:
Nevertheless, many of Whitings critics remain unconvinced.
There are those, of course, who defend Whiting, convinced that she is nothing more than a shrewd businesswoman whose determination and acumen have helped revitalize an otherwise ailing neighborhood. There are also folks, natives and transplants alike, who consider the whole hontroversy much ado about nothing - wasted effort and misplaced priorities in a city facing dire socioeconomic realities like gang violence, drugs, poverty and urban blight.
The same, of course, might be said of pro football. (But dont tell the fans that.)
Despite social plagues that land parts of Baltimore on statistical charts associated with the Third World, wrote Alvarez, if a community doesnt fight for the legacy of its grandmothers, what will it fight for? [Alvarez, Rafael. Robert Irsay in a Dress. northbaltimore.patch.com 31 Dec. 2010.]
One thing is certain: in a world full of disposable causes, such a sustained backlash seems to suggest more at play than simple envy (as some have suggested) of one savvy businesswomans foresight. In drawing on the viewpoints of a wide variety of contributors, this special edition of Smile, Hon, Youre in Baltimore! intends to explore the term Hon, its relationship to Baltimore past, present and future, and why so many feel so strongly about it
WILLIAM P. TANDY
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