There were sidewalks crammed with stuffed animals and helium balloons and parking lots full of magicians and clowns. There were barbecue-grilled ribs next to oysters and clams and homemade cheesecakes at every turn.
Politicians were on the prowl and people were boggying to the bands and everywhere there were exuberent entrepreneurs like the guy at Mama Tish's Fruit-Ice Stand who insisted that even though he was German, didn't know who Mama Tish was, and didn't even live in Ealtimore, Mama Tish's was still the best fruit ice in town.
This was the Baltimore City Fair, a three-day neighborhood love fest and orgy of gastronomic sensations. Thirteen years after it began in the wake of inner-city riots as a means to bring the city together, the fair has blossomed into charm city's biggest annual celebration, a civic and business carnival that is expected to attract more than 1 million visitors this year.
The fair, which ends Sunday night, is taking place on four waterfront piers near the city's pride and joy, the Inner Harbor, a section of town considered a national model of urban development.
"We started it 13 years ago with about 10 neighborhoods represented and a dozen little food stands," said Joan Mobley, chairman of the fair. "Now the whole thing's just exploded." More than 100 business and food establishments and 59 neighborhoods are represented in booths on both sides of Pratt Street, which separates the Fair into two different worlds.
On the waterfront side the piers are packed with ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds and Local rock music bands and vendors hawking everything from Italian sausage and Filipino port to Greek souvlaki and chocolate mud pies.
"Oh God, I couldn't," gasped one red-haired woman outside Moore's homemade cheesecake stand, who ogled an assortment of chocolate and partook anyway.
On the other side of Pratt Street are dozens of exhibition booths representing the neighborhoods of Baltimore, a town that boasts as many different ethnic enclaves as Washington does under secretaries. Italians from Little Italy are here as are the Germans of Hampden and the proud black flok of Evergreen, who are celebrating the 30th anniversary of their neighborhood's improvement association.
"Mainly," said Evergreen's Muriel Praileau, "we have retired people. In some neighborhoods you can't find a place to park at night. At Evergreen nobody roams around much so there's no parking by day either."
The citizens offer goods and foods that seem to represent their neighborhoods' best. Union Square, a section full of fountains and pigeons, offers peanuts to passersby while Washington Hills, an area that has enjoyed a renaissance by way of the city's homesteading program, displays posters and stained glass works of art created by its resident crafts people.
"We've come a long way since the '60s," said Washington Hills resident Betty Hyatt, in between bites on a barbecued rib. "We aren't as rich as neighborhoods like Otterbein but we're much more heterogenous." At the Otterbein booth, Geri Langan seemed to agree with Hyatt's assessment. "Out of 210 abandoned buildings, we've got 200 fixed up with people living in them again. Basically we're upper-middle class and pretty WASP." she said.
Among all the booths celebrating Baltimore's neighborhood pride, there was only one that seemed politically inclined. It was the booth of southeast Baltimore, a neighborhood that has experienced problems with male prostitution and government attempts to expand a Landfill site on Monument Street. One Wall of the booth was plastered with militant slogans. "Schaefer wants to emphasize only the good things, but as far as we're concerned, there's always room for improvement," said Southeast resident Chris Muldowney, who urged passersby to sign a petition to oppose a local gas-rate increase,
She was referring, of course, to Baltimore's Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who in addition to other politicians including Rep. Barbara Mikulski, was out on the hustings, gladhanding passersby and spreading boundless cheer.
The avuncular mayor, known for his amusing bombast, took over one of the bandstands earlier in the day and said he had it from knowledgeable sources that it wouldn't rain until Sunday night after the fair was doen. Everyone there laughed and cheered. Afterwards the mayor returned to his "Baltimore is Best" booth on Pier 6, where he sat intermittently throughout the day, entertaining visitors at a desk marked, "Ask the Mayor.