Let’s play word association, Baltimore style. If you hear “North Avenue,” what comes to mind? If someone brings up “Highlandtown,” what do you think of?
Words like decay, crime, blight, drugs, and lay-offs might make the list. On a more upbeat note, maybe retro, ethnic, and blue-collar occur to you, too.
But did “art” come up at all? How about creativity, diversity, investment, and destination?
If not, it may be time to revisit your stereotypes—both North Avenue (along with the Station North area to the south) and Highlandtown are undergoing profound change.
Consider this: It’s 9 o’clock on a Saturday night. Where can you go for a late dinner of salad Nicoise and chicken, corn, and apple pizza with a few pints of Guinness, while listening to a jazz pianist just back from performances in Europe?
Canton? Fells Point? Maybe. But you can definitely do that at Joe Squared, at the corner of North Avenue and Howard Street.
Or try this multiple-choice quiz: It’s early afternoon at a Highlandtown tavern (The Laughing Pint) at the corner of Conkling and Gough. The proprietor and a half dozen regulars are talking, and the hot topics of conversation are A) The Ravens’ offensive woes, B) The industrial heyday of Beth Steel, GM, etc., or C) Placing art in public spaces, a silent auction at a condo development, and various grant deadlines.
C, it is.
What’s going on here? In part, it’s the continuation of a decades-long trend that’s seen artists move into depressed, post-industrial areas. It’s also the result of a fairly new approach to economic development, an arts-based approach that figures to challenge entrenched perceptions about certain neighborhoods, the nature of development, and the city itself.
We’re accustomed to hearing about projects such as Hopkins’ Biotech Park, sports stadiums, and the downtown construction boom, but the recent addition of arts-related development to that list represents something of a sea change. The city has even turned the iconic Bromo Seltzer building into artist studios and renamed it the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower. “Political people and people in power have finally recognized the power of the arts as an economic development tool, and they’re making it happen here in Baltimore,” says Linda DePalma, director of education programs at the Creative Alliance, a community-based arts center in Highlandtown.
“The changes we’re seeing indicate that Baltimore has opened its doors to artists,” says Scott Kelly, associate dean of graduate programs at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA).
In 2002, Maryland became the first state to create Arts and Entertainment Districts as a way of stimulating development. Of the 15 designated areas around the state, two are located in Baltimore City: Station North (which includes North Avenue from Howard to Greenmount) and Highlandtown. In these neighborhoods, state and city government are using tax incentives—including property tax credits, exemptions from admissions and amusement taxes, and a waiver of the sales tax on artwork—to attract and retain artists and arts-related development.
But can the arts really give Station North and Highlandtown the boost they’ve long needed? Looking around, there are signs that it’s already happening.
Standing on the median strip at North and Howard—North Avenue is the Station North district’s northern boundary—it’s easy to spot some of the arts-related changes taking place in the area. For one, there are bold, colorful sculptures on the median itself. To the south, Hour Haus Studios, a band rehearsal and performance space, sits between Joe Squared and the Howard Street Bridge. The old Joseph A. Bank building is nearby—it’s now owned by MICA and houses student studios and offices for arts-related organizations such as the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, Maryland Lawyers for the Arts, and the Station North Arts District.
Across the street, the former Lombard Office Furniture building has been transformed into a veritable artists colony. Called Load of Fun Studios, its large, front windows are emblazoned with life-size portraits of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and letters from the original Lombard Office Furniture sign have been removed so the remaining letters spell Load of Fun. Inside, there are 24,000 square feet of galleries, performance spaces, and artist studios.
To the west, construction continues on The Gateway, the newest addition to MICA’s campus. Slated to open in the spring, it will house more than 200 student apartments, exhibition and performance space, and a career development center.
Down the street, two projects are underway at North and Charles. The Market Building is being developed into a gallery, artist studios, and a coffee shop, and the old Chateau Hotel is being turned into a jazz club and restaurant by a couple from Harford County. Around the corner, a former Sun writer has opened a café and gallery next to Caribbean Paradise, the Lo-Fi Social Club has found a home across the street, and there’s a gallery (Metro Gallery) adjacent to Metro Cleaners. That stretch of Charles also includes the Charles Theatre, Everyman Theatre, the Zodiac restaurant, Sofi’s Crepes, Tapas Teatro, Club Choices, Flux Studios, The Depot, and Drytear, which is billed as a “counter-culture” clothing and accessories shop.
And then there are the artist-occupied warehouses near the train tracks that define Station North’s southwestern border. They include the Copy Cat Building, the Cork Factory, and 405 East Oliver Street, where the Area 405 gallery is located. And a change in zoning law has made it easier for artists to legally live in such buildings.
“Central Baltimore is the perfect crossroads for the arts,” says Nancy Haragan, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance. “It is close to everything. There is even actual mass transit nearby. There are some key properties that need to come into play, but the artists in the community are slowly making common cause with the existing community to make commitments and put down some roots. A vision is emerging that wants more going on, but in the gritty, affordable, and accessible way that has been a Baltimore tradition.”
Carolyn McGuire-Frenkil, who’s developing the Market Building, says the area, grit and all, is in a transitional phase. “We believe our effort will jump-start the opening of more arts and entertainment venues on North Avenue,” she says. “I wouldn’t be making the investment if I didn’t believe it. The city has done everything it can do with the Inner Harbor and Canton. They are now looking at neighborhoods like Station North that had been neglected and need to be reclaimed.”
Kevin Brown, the former Sun and Baltimore Afro-American writer, opened the Station North Arts Café Gallery a year ago. “We opened at this location partly because of the arts district,” says Brown. “So far, it’s been a good ride, and business has been great, a mix of workaday people and artists.”
Brown also mentions the transitional aspect of life in Station North. Crime is still a concern. “People want us to stay open at night,” he says, noting that the café, which serves breakfast and lunch, closes at 3 p.m. “And we’d like to do that eventually, but we’re not quite there yet.”
Sherwin Mark, the artist and MICA professor who owns and manages Load of Fun, speaks of a need to create “a dynamic and diverse community” and “a block that will act as a seed.”
Load of Fun has practically done that by itself. Besides hosting art shows, poetry readings, film screenings, benefits, and neighborhood flea markets, it has brought together a dynamic and diverse group of artists. They’re largely attracted by the affordable studio space and the evolution of the arts district. Load of Fun’s current studio roster includes the Fluid Movement performance group, neo-burlesque performer Trixie Little, Mara Neimanis’ Aerial Theatre, glass mosaic artist John Ellsberry, and painters Spoon Popkin and Daniel Stuelpnagel.
Little, who moved to Baltimore from Annapolis in 1997, says she’s glad the city is making its artists a priority. “A city’s economy will thrive if you preserve its cultural identity and not make it so expensive for artists that they leave,” says Little. “We bring a lot of performers from New York here and they’re all surprised at how much we pay for our studio space.”
Stuelpnagel was renting studio space in D.C. but relocated to Baltimore because of Load of Fun. “Where else can you get a 1,000-square-foot space for less than $600?” he asks.
“Station North accents the arts that are particular to Baltimore and an underground movement that’s coming to the surface,” says Mark. “It’s a community for people who live in Baltimore and outsiders want to get a taste of this.”
Across town, Felicia Zannino-Baker sits at a table in the back room of her Highlandtown shop and gallery, Magnolia Designs. A Highlandtown native, she went to MICA, moved to D.C., and founded an interior design company. Two years ago, she returned to the neighborhood and opened her store.
“I actually grew up across the street,” she says, pointing out Zannino Funeral Home, the family business, on Conkling Street. “There used to be a poultry shop in this building, and every week, I would come here and choose chicken for the family. I was one of eight children, and I would choose 50 pieces of chicken, fresh cut. So that is my image of this building.”
It’s much different these days. Oil and watercolor paintings cover the walls, blown glass and pottery line shelves, and hand-painted furniture sits on the floor. Quilted handbags, children’s clothes, and other crafts brighten the corners. All the art is by local artists. “I’m meeting new artists every week or two,” says Zannino-Baker. “When I first moved back, I didn’t think there would be this rich layer of local art.”
Her involvement with the Highlandtown Arts and Entertainment District—she’s on the board of directors—was something of an eye-opener. “I liked the direction and felt that sincere efforts were underway to make positive changes in the neighborhood,” she says. “An arts community is a hub and people are drawn there. It’s a very positive image for the community and brings different types of people together.”
Nowhere is that more evident than at the old Patterson Theater on Eastern Avenue. In the 1990’s, the Patterson’s closing symbolized the disinvestment in Highlandtown, the decline of its commercial strip, and, to some extent, the demise of blue-collar Baltimore. Now, it symbolizes something much different. The Patterson was reinvented as a multi-purpose arts center in 2003 by the Creative Alliance, with help from the Southeast Community Development Corporation and local politicos. (Highlandtown’s Crown Cork and Seal building has been developed into artist space, as well.)
“Highlandtown had problems and was losing residents,” says Creative Alliance Program Director Megan Hamilton, “but it had good leadership and grassroots community organizations who stood up and said, ‘We’ll develop this with you.’ You have to plant a flag, and the arts are fun, charismatic, and easy to sell.”
The Creative Alliance—with its galleries, performance space, and live-in artist studios—has become an anchor in the neighborhood by hosting a dizzying array of programs. It co-sponsors the Great Halloween Lantern Parade, an annual event that draws upwards of 5,000 people to Patterson Park. On any given month, it hosts theater and filmmaking workshops, songwriting critiques, a Latino film festival, dance classes, computer software instruction, drawing and painting classes, CD release parties, storytelling projects, gallery talks, a wreath-making party, a neo-burlesque show, and various art exhibitions at the Patterson.
About 1,000 kids, mostly from Southeast Baltimore, attend after-school programs at the Creative Alliance, which has made outreach to the surrounding community’s longtime residents and immigrant populations a priority. “In the Highlandtown Arts District, the working class, immigrant, and arts communities are getting mixed up together,” says Hamilton. “That’s exciting, because it’s incredibly important to create connections between artists and communities to help offset the effects of monolithic media. There is a huge amount of talent in Baltimore, but people haven’t always understood that. People sort of think that local art is bad, what’s on the cover of Time magazine is good. But the artists that are creating work in your city, that live next door to you, have huge things to offer you.”
Dan Schiavone might just be the embodiment of the artist as a good neighbor. He lives on Highland Avenue in an old Moose Lodge. He’s turned the first floor into a gallery and lives upstairs with his wife and 2-year-old son. Schiavone, who co-founded the Creative Alliance (which was called the Fells Point Creative Alliance at its inception), plays organ at Our Lady of Pompei and helps organize local events such as the Highlandtown Wine Festival.
Just back from a Highlandtown Arts steering committee meeting at the Laughing Pint, Schiavone sits in his spacious gallery and considers the benefits of the arts district designation. He’s somewhat dismissive of the tax incentives, noting that “they can be, but most often are not, of great value to artists. In order to really benefit from it, you need to generate a decent income from your work, and many artists do not.”
The larger value, according to Schiavone (and other artists, as well), is actually less tangible. “The larger value for us, and for Highlandtown,” he says, “is the label and generating interest around the arts, rallying around this geographic designation. It’s great for getting people excited about the area.”
With a reserved enthusiasm that borders on reverence, Schiavone points out that Highlandtown already had a lot going for it, in spite of its late 1980’s/early 1990’s downturn. He mentions DiPasquale’s market and deli, Globe Poster, the wedding shops along Eastern Avenue, and various other establishments. Schiavone also stresses that the arts-based changes in the neighborhood should not overshadow such local institutions. Ideally, says Schiavone, the arts will complement and highlight them. It’s about re-contextualization, not replacement.
Megan Hamilton echoes that point. “It’s definitely about re-contextualizing stuff,” she says. “It’s not like some of these things weren’t already there. But the arts can help Highlandtown go from being perceived as a place that had its act together when it had all those manufacturing jobs to not being so cool anymore to a place where there’s all this activity and great art and people sometimes come from all over the world to perform at the Patterson. And it also has Hoehn’s Bakery, Matthew’s Pizza, and you can look at the painted screens and a lot of stuff that was already there anyway. An arts scene can help facilitate that.
“Like in Station North,” she continues, “the train station’s down there and the Charles Theatre, but it’s kind of scary over there—that’s what some people think. But a vibrant arts scene can be like glitter dust, and then, it’s like, ‘Oh, there’s the Charles and the train station. It’s like changing the lens on it, and you’re able to see these things a little differently.”
Baltimore, as a whole, might be well positioned for this sort of transition. At the Mayor’s Cultural Town Meeting in October, two guest speakers drove home that point.
Addressing an audience comprised mostly of artists and arts administrators, Monika Megyesi—a University of Baltimore grad student and co-author of “Creativity and Industrial Cities: A Case Study of Baltimore”—began her talk by saying, “I’m here to tell you how important you all are to the future of Baltimore’s economic development.”
Megyesi likened creativity in the 21st Century to the ability to push a plow in the 18th century. Espousing views made popular by Richard Florida’s influential book, The Rise of the Creative Class, she stressed that artists, musicians, performers, designers, and architects contribute new ideas and concepts to the economy and touted Baltimore’s potential to transition from an industrial economy to a creative one.
Anne L’Ecuyer, associate vice president with Americans for the Arts, then spoke about her group’s recent study of Baltimore’s nonprofit arts organizations. “This study discredits the old myth that the arts are luxuries to be funded during prosperous times but hard to justify when the economy is struggling,” she said. “At times when governments at all levels are making tough budget choices, it sends an important message: Support for the arts is not at the expense of economic development. Quite the contrary—leaders who care about community and economic development are investing in the arts.”
She then PowerPointed to various stats: the arts are a $270 million industry in Baltimore City, supporting 6,500 jobs, and generating $146.8 million in resident household income and $12.6 million in local government revenue. “If this industry could go public, they’d be lining up for it,” said L’Ecuyer. “It’s made up of organizations that grow at the roots of your communities. These are people who care about the neighborhoods they live in, and they are often people who grew up in Baltimore and have a rich understanding of the kind of community you’ve been building over the years. These are not jobs that are easily shipped offshore. This is an industry that you invest in locally and it stays here.”
Still, most folks agree that the arts can’t do it alone. “I don’t think the arts can turn a neighborhood around on their own,” says Megan Hamilton, “but I think they are critical components in that process.”
“Art can have an impact,” says Peter Bruun, director of Art on Purpose, a community arts organization. “It can be catalytic. . . . But you also need investment, business, and job opportunities.”
Dennis Livingston has a keen understanding of this, as well as issues relating to potential gentrification in Highlandtown and Station North, where he lives. A resident of the Cork Factory for 10 years, Livingston, in association with ACORN and the Baltimore Trade Guild, has been training people to do home restoration work with an emphasis on health and safety. Many of the trainees live in the Station North district. “We want to give them skills so they can develop careers for the rest of their lives,” says Livingston, who champions an economically and racially diverse Station North.
At the same time, he views gentrification warily, as many artists do. “I’m delighted that new people are coming into the area as long as the original people don’t get thrown out,” says Livingston.
MICA President Fred Lazarus and others readily acknowledge that that scenario has played out in various other cities. “Artists have historically been victims of neighborhood [gentrification], not beneficiaries,” he says. “We need to create an arts and entertainment district that sustains artists through the transition.”
Most observers agree it will take increased effort, vision, and resources to achieve that goal. When Mayor Sheila Dixon addressed the Town Hall meeting at MICA, she implied that those resources might not be forthcoming. Without giving specifics, she noted that the proposed state budget cuts “would be very detrimental to what we’ve done over the last several years. . . . Many of you know what will be the first to go.”
Everyone knew the answer—arts funding. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘Where are the priorities?’” Dixon continued. “The priorities, of course, are public safety, education, and providing basic services.”
The implication was that we might not be able to adequately fund the arts. But, it also raised the question, “Can we afford not to?”