Baltimore: At City Hall this fall, talk was of Flamingogate

At the center of Baltimore's Flamingogate was a multistory pink flamingo made of chicken wire and bed sheets.

Stephanie Hanes
A parade of purple flamingos grace the window of Baltimore's Cafe Hon, a city landmark. Their much larger pink colleague, which for years was attached to the outside of the restaurant, was the center of a municipal controversy that became known as Flamingogate.

It was a standard municipal spat, Baltimore-style. It had angry First Amendment advocates and irritated small-business owners, bewildered city bureaucrats and fatigued politicians, and dozens of protesters – many wearing oversized glasses and beehive hairdos – who covered the lawn of Baltimore’s city hall with plastic pink flamingos.

Flamingogate, so-dubbed by City Hall, became the talk of the town here this fall.

At the center of it all, perhaps not surprisingly given the name, was a bird. A fake bird, in fact. A multistory pink flamingo made of chicken wire and bed sheets that had long graced the outside of Cafe Hon, a restaurant in the city’s quirky Hampden neighborhood.

Now, as background, this restaurant is a proclaimed monument to John Waters-style Baltimore kitsch. (“Hon,” for the uninitiated, being the ubiquitous sentence suffix in some parts of this city. As in “Howya doin’, hon?” Or, “J’eet yet, hon?”). And while some locals grumble that owner Denise Whiting has yuppified their style, she is still widely regarded as the city’s queen of camp.

The controversy started when Whiting received notice from the city that she would have to pay a $1,300 fee, plus $800 every year, to keep the flamingo in its perch – a sort of penalty for the bird taking up public space. Unwilling to pay this new expense, she started dismantling the creature.

But public outcry ensued. For a city that prides itself on quirk – and on being the capital of self-proclaimed Birdland (lukewarm thanks here to Orioles baseball and Ravens football) – many saw the newly required permit as downright hostile.

Protesters organized. They started a “Give Baltimore the Bird” group on Facebook and a “Flock to City Hall” protest. The police commissioner voiced his support for the flamingo. So did the mayor. Local media followed the events relentlessly. And eventually, Mayor Sheila Dixon and Ms. Whiting appeared together on a radio show and hammered out a compromise.

The fees were lowered; the bird – or a new fiberglass version of it – would be reinstated. And Baltimore breathed a sigh of relief.

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