The City That Breeds » Politics » The Cafe Hon Flamingo – breakdown of the dumb.

The Cafe Hon Flamingo – breakdown of the dumb.

This is truly and without question one of those days that the namesake of this website couldn’t be more appropriate.

The Sun reports this morning (A Flamingo Flap, 10/21/2009) that the giant, controversial (what?), pink flamingo adorning Cafe Hon in Hampden has been removed as a result of the owner, Denise Whiting, refusing to pay a fee of $800 for the ‘privilege’ of intruding upon public space. Other examples include outdoor seating, chalkboard advertisements (what an invasion of my space!) and statues, apparently. Really, none of the legalities or arguments as to whether or not this big dumb bird belongs on the restaurant’s fire escape interest me terribly. But let me tell you what does: reading the comments left on the article. MAN. High level entertainment. From the mess, here’s what I’ve kind of learned about this whole thing:

  • Hampdenites tend to think very, very little of Cafe Hon, Honfest and the owner of Cafe Hon in general.
  • Everyone else thinks the flamingo is an icon.
  • The owner is “controversial” to the point that I overheard a reporter asking about her at another Hampden restaurant, which will undoubtedly result in an article about her specifically and therefore give her (and her restaurant) more publicity.
  • Regardless of the situation’s outcome, Cafe Hon is going to benefit due to said publicity.
  • Teenagers are still being shot and dying elsewhere in the city.

Again, I couldn’t care less about the flamingo or what people think about it, so I’d like to use this situation as an opportunity to make one simple point about living in and operating a business in Baltimore City: Sooner or later they will find a new way to try to get your money, one way or another. Always and forever.

And I’m not seemingly suggesting that a business shouldn’t pay for intruding on the use of common space – if it’s an actual intrusion or god forbid a legitimate safety hazard. Outdoor seating or some sort of ornamental fountain, these things get in the way of me trying to walk the full width of a particular sidewalk and a business should pay for such things, especially if they stand to profit due to their presence. But a statue of Elvis, chalkboard with specials on it, or a giant flamingo hovering ten feet above the ground at its lowest point? Not getting in the way, and not hurting anyone.

But the city hungers. It is entitled. It finds a way to walk right up to a business or home and knock on the door and say “Excuse me, but you owe us $800 for this.”

And where, exactly, did that figure come from? $800? Would it have been less if the flamingo were smaller, or if it were instead a flat tapestry hanging off of the fire escape instead of a sculpture protruding 1.5 feet outward? Would anyone have cared if it were a big American flag? In my mind the answer to the figure’s origin is pretty simple; it’s arbitrary. And I guarantee that if paid, the fee would go up in time and a new excuse would be made for why it has become necessary to pay $1000 to put a chalkboard on a sidewalk.

When infrequent author wgatsum asked the question “What’s the point of the Department of General Services?” last November, we all kind of shrugged and wrote it off as another waste of time and energy by the city government to perpetuate its own existence. Now it would seem that one of its main functions is pretty clear; to write parking tickets for buildings.

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  • “The city hungers” hahahahhaa! so sad but true.

    A few years ago, I did a piece about how Honfest is hated by the locals, who see it as gimmicky, and loved by tourists. I even spoke with John Waters, who said the image of the Hon is overplayed.

    Of course, TV news being TV news, this set off a firestorm of controversy, which ended with Waters calling Denise to apologize. Funny thing was, Denise admitted the whole thing was a gimmick. That’s the point, she said, and the result is more attention on Hampden.

    Also, good call on the Dept. of General Services. I’d forgotten about them until this.

    • Yeah I understand people’s gripes with the concept and execution of Hon Fest – to a certain degree. They for some reason hate the idea of marketing Baltimore kitsch and they don’t want it in their precious neighborhood, but quite frankly the Hampden we see now is, oh, like 40000 times better than it was in the 80s. Most transplants don’t know that. Cafe Hon (including that big dumb flamingo), Atomic Books and all the other fair trade peruvian hand made basket stores (or whatever the hell else is around there) have done WONDERS for the neighborhood.

  • TimD

    All good points. Clearly the city can focus on Cafe Hon because all the other problems have already been solved.

  • “Teenagers are still being shot and dying elsewhere in the city.”

    That line made my day. People in this city get so worked up over little things, but we can’t seem to get upset over the crime rate (i suppose its down, and thats good, but we’re still talking about a lot of murders). There was a lot of media coverage over the decapitated body found in the sewer manhole, but thats the kind of story that sells itself, its like something out of CSI. Apparently stories akin to the Wire don’t sell many papers/tv ads

    • As was stated so aptly in the Wire – those things happen in the wrong zipcode.

  • part time hampdenite

    One of the things missing in all of this debate is the reason why there are regulations for things like this to begin with.

    What would happen if that thing fell off the fire escape and wiped out a car driving up 36th?

    There are a reasons for things like inspections / building codes / etc.

    People need to learn to separate out the issues at play here:
    1. Someone violating an existing code
    2. The city not citing code violations in a timely manner
    3. The object itself’s significance.

    Like it or not, laws exist for reasons, and most of the time, they’re reasons that aren’t immediately apparent to a casual observer.

    • Believe me, I’m aware of these issues you’ve brought up and they’re all still fairly ridiculous as far as the logic train is concerned. The reasons are immediately apparent to me even as a casual observer; from any angle the law has been stretched beyond actual usefulness and is being used to shake down businesses for their dough.

      Angle 1 – Code Violation. Apparently for seven years the city didn’t really think it was in violation of any code, until the inspectors began “finding” violations seemingly all at once around the city, most of which had been going on exceedingly innocuously for many years. I find it incredibly hard to believe that it was oversight on the part of every single city inspector walking the beat. Meaning, they weren’t actually code violations until someone arbitrarily decided they were. There is no timely manner to speak of, because they were never actually in violation of anything significant.

      Angle 2 – Public Complaints. citizens complain about the flamingo because it’s an eyesore, they find it offensive, etc. and the city says “ok we’ve received some complaints, pay us 800 dollars and we’ll ignore them.” This is pretty much exactly what happened with the Elvis statue at Nacho Mama’s – someone “anonymously complained” to the DoGC and Nacho Mama’s was fined. How does the money change anything at all?

      Angle 3 – Safety Hazard. If that thing fell of off the fire escape I highly doubt it would wipe out a car. It’s made of chicken wire. Besides which, how is 800 dollars paid to the city going to make any bit of difference as to whether or not that happens at all? Citing it as a “safety hazard” and then saying “well paying 800 a year ought to cover it” doesn’t really make any bit of sense. At all.

      Angle 4 – Significance. This is my favorite part. The Cafe owner hangs a decoration seven years ago, never takes it down, and over the years said decoration is publicly transformed from “decoration” to “marketing ploy” to “local icon” and so forth. The court of public opinion – and the city – has somehow decided that the thing is an advertisement for the cafe and is invading public space, and therefore needs to be taxed. Some decry its existence, others worship it – so because it’s popular/controversial and is considered some sort of landmark, the city is owed money? WHY? Seriously, WHY? Even if the city forced the owner to recognize the flamingo as a billboard advertisement and charge them because “it brings more business to the cafe” the city still benefits in the form of taxes garnered from the business itself. The never lost anything by not charging them 800 bucks.

      Great, I just wrote another post in comment form.