An artist who grew up in Baltimore, Stevens was so busy selling prints of his colorful cityscapes he barely had time to talk Sunday — until it came time to discuss the bustling SoWeBo Arts and Music Festival that was unfolding all around him, the 26th in a row to be held in the Hollins Market neighborhood on Memorial Day weekend.
To Stevens, any good arts celebration helps give people "a reminder that there's a tomorrow and a day after tomorrow" — especially in a neighborhood like the one surrounding Hollins Market, a historic section of the city just north of the B&O Museum that was once home to the likes of Sun journalist and author H.L. Mencken but where, over the years, upswings in crime have caused concern.
To Kim Crampton, who has lived in her home on Hollins Avenue for 15 years, the harder times of the early 1990s seem to have passed.
"Everybody here knows each other," she says, pointing out a home across the street that was abandoned when she first moved in — and just sold, in rehabbed form, for more than $200,000. "It's a diverse mix of people. It's very safe, at least right around here. We see this as an up-and-coming neighborhood."
City officials cordoned off an eight-block area along Hollins Avenue between South Carrollton to the west and South Schroeder to the east, where thousands of people heard the music of 21 bands, strolling among booths where items like photographs, African antiques and synthetic flowers were on sale.
Andrea Novak of Canton seemed thrilled with a purchase from Stevens, whose acrylic-and-watercolor impressions of neighborhoods including Fells Point, Butchers Hill and Mount Vernon were selling quickly.
"I just love his stuff, and I like to buy local artwork," said Novak, who purchased four of Stevens' pieces at $20 each. "It makes for a unique gift. So much better than a mug or a T-shirt. Plus, he gave me a deal."
Novak hadn't been to the festival in years — not since "the early days" of the late 1980s, when local residents say Southwest Baltimore was a thriving artists' haven and an area relatively free of crime.
But she had heard such good things about the neighborhood lately she decided to return to the festival, which a local arts organization set up in 1985 as a sort of antidote to Artscape, which has more stringent entry standards for artists who want to display their wares.
"In that respect, it's sort of the anti-Artscape," said resident Richard Pickens, who was helping out at the SoWeBo Festival Salon Art Show in a space on South Schroeder Street. "It's very democratic."
Pickens, who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years, wasn't the only one to sing its praises as an eclectic place, where people of all types get along and where artists have always felt at home.
Crampton was hosting a barbecue on the sidewalk outside her home. Had she gone for a walk, she'd have passed booths hawking original beadwork and handmade hula hoops, meeting the grungy, the dreadlocked, the preppie, the heavily tattooed and the combat-booted.
She might have met Kevin Allen Read, an English-born travel photographer whose striking images of scenes from Rome, Peru and Fells Point were attracting interest and visitors, if not a lot of buyers.
Read and his assistant, Karen Pfarr, came to their first SoWeBo fest last year, and the eclectic atmosphere encouraged him to complete a career change and strike out in the world of photography by starting his own company, Shutter Safari.
"It's a wonderful mix of different kinds of people here," he said, glancing up and down the street. "This festival is more on the hippie side of things, which suits us just fine."
As the sun sank a bit, creating relief for the crowds, Stevens was still going strong. Rap music boomed from a stage half a block away as he chatted with his customers, making another sale.
"I keep my prices reasonable," he said, and his thinking seemed apt for the way the festival has become a Baltimore tradition. "That way people can take something home with them. What I'm trying to say is, I find a way to make it work."