BALTIMORE — On the April day when Freddie Gray died from injuries he suffered in police custody and a week before rioters took to the streets in protest, Karen Brooks Hopkins, president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, gave a PowerPoint presentation to a small group of Baltimoreans about the future of their city.
With its low rents and offbeat entertainment scene, Baltimore has had an influx of young college-educated urbanites. But the city wrestles with a shocking number of shootings and a mobtown reputation that has driven many high earners to the suburbs. The symposium, in a state-of-the-art auditorium little more than a mile down North Avenue from the blighted block where Gray was arrested, centered on a question that has sparked revitalization efforts from Detroit to Dublin and from Miami to Marseille: whether arts can turn a city around.
They can, said Hopkins, who helped turn BAM into a catalyst for Brooklyn’s cultural revolution “where institutions small and large, ethnically diverse, and visual and performing arts exist side by side — a metaphor for how we live in this urban environment.”
Hopkins was speaking in a 1915 warehouse that has been repurposed as the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Lazarus Center for graduate studies. The $19 million renovation, complete with a 130-seat auditorium, cafe and light-filled atrium, is named after MICA’s recently retired president, Fred Lazarus. But the building looks like something of a miracle itself, risen from streets still scarred by the riots of 1968. With its glass doors and open aspect, it provided a symbolic setting for a discussion about an experiment in urban renewal that has been underway here since 2002. That’s when Maryland recognized the kernels of creativity in the troubled blocks north of Baltimore’s train station and designated them its first “arts and entertainment district,” arming the 100-acre site with tax incentives to promote “community involvement, tourism and revitalization.”
Today, Station North is bookended by the facts of Gray’s short life: To the east lies a hesitantly gentrifying block of Victorian rowhouses where Gray once lived and where members of his family continue to reside; to the west is the intersection where protesters rampaged in anger at his death. In between are a coal-fired pizza parlor and a pop-up performance space; galleries, graffiti and giant murals. There’s a new public school focused on design and a recently renovated multistory public housing complex. The Maryland Film Festival and the nationally acclaimed street fair known as Artscape attract hordes each year, as do two methadone clinics, which receive 1,000 patient visits a day and provide an attractive hub for drug dealers.
Joe McNeely draws attention to these juxtapositions as he drives through the arts district and adjacent communities, slowing to show off decorative house-number plaques made locally and a trash-strewn lot where an apartment building for artists will soon break ground. McNeely is founding director of the Central Baltimore Partnership, an alliance of some 60 nonprofits and businesses, educational institutions and government agencies, artists and neighborhood associations, that is credited with helping to bring almost $800 million of investments into the arts district and surrounding neighborhoods in less than a decade. As he drives, he talks about the challenges of nurturing commerce without luring in speculators who have little interest in the local culture. And about the bigger battle, particularly in the wake of April’s riots, of combating what many people here refer to as Baltimore’s “perception problem” — and whether, as Hopkins suggested, a bohemian revitalization project can help turn Bulletmore, Murderland, back into Charm City.
That’s what Kisha L. Webster calls her decision to move to “the heart of the city” in 2014. Webster begins a walking tour of one of the arts district’s residential pockets in front of a Montessori charter school. The squat brick building served as the set for a beleaguered middle school in the fourth season of David Simon’s TV series “The Wire.” Then it was used as a homeless shelter. Now, brightly colored paper cutouts decorate the windows, and outside four chickens scratch at the dirt beside fruit trees, berry bushes, a freshly sown vegetable garden and play equipment. There is a waiting list of 1,200 to enroll in this oasis, which educates 340 students.
Webster, vice president of the neighborhood community association, strolls on past vacant rowhouses, subsidized housing and a brick facade teetering between wooden struts as it awaits a fresh interior and new inhabitants.
She exchanges greetings as she goes. She makes a point of keeping neighbors abreast of upcoming changes, she says, aware that she might have been viewed as “an interloper.” The newcomers “seem to want to help,” two women acknowledge from their mid-morning perch on a sunlit stoop. The possibility of having to move out, though, is always “a big worry,” they say.
For now, there’s little cause for concern about displacement here. Unlike cities such as Chicago, Boston and Washington, where thriving real estate markets send prices skyrocketing, much of Station North is empty commercial space, suitable for artists’ lofts. And in this rowhouse neighborhood, almost 60 percent of the 700 properties were vacant eight years ago, and half that number remain so today.
“More people are displaced by abandonment than investment,” says McNeely, who has a strong commitment to maintaining affordable housing. And ultimately, if there is some displacement, argues Richard Clinch, a consultant and former economics professor at the University of Baltimore, that’s the price of bringing back the city’s tax base.
Further down the street, where Webster points out a corner building about to undergo renovation, scavengers circle in trucks on the lookout for scrap metal.
“I’ve seen it go up, and I’ve seen it go down,” says Tina Knox, of the place she’s lived for five decades. Years ago, “it was terrible,” she says, alluding to the dealers on the corners. She nods as Webster explains plans for a vacant lot nearby, where Jubilee Baltimore, a nonprofit that develops affordable and market-rate housing, is about to build the apartments for artists. These days, Knox says, what worries her most is the dust that the repeated renovations kick up, with all the asthma and bronchitis around.
That’s part of the “good and the bad” of gentrification, says Webster, who prefers to call what’s happening here a “renaissance.”
The spirit of rebirth reveals itself in many ways. But nobody is talking about returning the area to the tailored elegance of a century ago. A print on the wall of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, with its soaring Tiffany windows, shows Baltimore’s spiffy elite strolling these streets.
People speak instead about Station North’s evolving “ecosystem” and refer to the changes as “organic.” On the street, that can seem haphazard. Diffuse. And fragile.
The arts district lacks the thematic unity of another nearby project — the $1.8 billion, 88-acre biopark underway just north of the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Nor does it have the singular commercial ambition that lies behind the 128- acre redevelopment of Port Covington, where Under Armour chief executive Kevin Plank is planning to headquarter his company.
“No national tenants,” announces Carolyn Frenkil as she describes the businesses that will occupy the sprawling structure across from the Lazarus Center that her late husband bought with a partner after a fire in 1968. The former market now houses a performance venue, an Irish pub and Red Emma’s, a bookstore-cafe where a recent lunchtime crowd filled every table, tapping on laptops over banh mi sandwiches and black bean salads.
No Starbucks, Frenkil continues, to drive her point home. No Anthropologie. None of the chains that anchor developments such as Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
The cornerstones of this area instead are academic institutions: Johns Hopkins University to the north; the University of Baltimore to the south, led by Kurt Schmoke, the city’s first elected African American mayor; and, most significant, MICA to the west. The art school doubled its enrollment during Lazarus’s 36-year tenure and increased its footprint tenfold, expanding onto North Avenue where students used to be discouraged from going, says Dale Dusman, who enrolled in 1968 and is pastor of St. Mark’s.
That combination — of artists and academics, thinkers and tinkerers — make this arts district a crucible for the concept University of Toronto professor Richard Florida advanced in his 2002 bestseller, “The Rise of the Creative Class.” Florida argued that people who create for a living are part of an ascendant economic force that will determine which post-industrial cities thrive.
It’s a controversial thesis that has been criticized for failing to demonstrate that any benefits accrue to the poor — for “pushing problems to the periphery,” as Ben Stone, executive director of the nonprofit Station North Arts and Entertainment District, puts it. But in its small way, Station North is thriving and making the streets safer for everyone by putting more feet on them. Behind a new restaurant owned by Helmand Karzai, nephew of the former Afghan president, Baltimore-based developer Ernst Valery is proposing to construct a 100-unit residential building. The market is ripe: Apartments nearby have been snapped up, McNeely says.
It doesn’t matter whether investors are nonprofit or for profit, he says. The success of redevelopment “depends on their values.”
What McNeely and others worry about is speculation. And the name that comes up repeatedly is of Washington restaurateur and real estate mogul Tony Cheng and what some describe as his “Is that for sale? I’ll buy it” mentality. Cheng owns a dozen prime parcels in the area and has shown few signs of putting money into them.
Cheng declined to comment for this story. But his Baltimore neighborhood has found its own quirky ways of sending a message about what needs to happen here. On one of the buildings Cheng owns — and with his consent — mural artists have been at work. A vast yellow smiley face adorns the bleak windowless wall of the former check-cashing plant, along with the words “Looks much better now!” But the smile is incomplete. Only the upper corners of the lips show.
And across the road on an open lot belonging to Cheng is a pop-up performance space with new grass and trees.
It’s known as the “Why Not Lot,” an apparent exhortation to free expression. But it’s spelled “Ynot Lot.” That’s “Tony” backward. A playful attempt to reverse the mogul’s ways.
In a pink shirt and a tie adorned with green turtles, Charlie Duff, Jubilee Baltimore’s president, looks like an unlikely enthusiast for this determinedly unconventional part of town. As he shows off the nonprofit’s $18 million project — converting a 67,000-square-foot disused car dealership-cum-movie theater into a center for arts and innovation that will include a computer gaming company called Sparkypants Studios, a MICA-Hopkins film studies collaboration, as well as jewelry-making studios — it becomes clear that Duff is not just in the business of renovating buildings. He wants to renovate a state of mind.
Baltimore is to Washington what Bologna once was to Rome, the Baltimore native contends. Affordable. And uninhibited by pretensions that stifle innovation.
Even as he enthuses about transforming spaces — a tool library in a former factory that has made everything from Venetian blinds to beer; a thrift shop that’s destined to become a makerspace; new housing for artists — he talks about transforming attitudes. About bringing people to Baltimore to breathe life into this burgeoning offbeat arts scene.
MICA provided many of the early immigrants. The school conducted surveys over the years, asking admitted students why they decided to accept the school’s offer — or turn it down. Baltimore used to be a reason for them not to come to MICA, Lazarus explains. In recent years, the reverse has been true. The prospect of living here has brought prospective students to the school.
And that, says Duff, turned Station North into the first act of “La Boheme,” a community of impecunious artists starving in their garrets. He determined to create the next Act here — a place where artists stay and might even raise families.
Like Caitlin Byrnes, a burlesque performer and holistic health coach who says she “fell in love” with living here. Or Qwishuna Smith, a leather and graphics artist who put herself on a waiting list to secure one of the artists’ apartments.
“We wouldn’t change it for anything,” says Lena Leone, despite having witnessed a street fight among carloads of young men right outside her door. Leone has found a community of longtime residents who offer neighborly support she’s never experienced elsewhere.
Still, this is a city in which 100 people had been slain this year by late May. And Freddie Gray’s death put a focus on those problems. Smith was coming home from a wedding one night after the riots when an eerie voice from a helicopter overhead told her to get inside, before the 10 p.m. curfew.
Could the riots frighten away the very “community involvement, tourism and revitalization” Baltimore is finally attracting?
They certainly made many people retreat from the big-picture questions Hopkins echoed at the symposium — of whether Station North can help make Baltimore into a Brooklyn. In the weeks that followed the unrest, business owners and supporters of the arts seemed more focused on their short-term future. What it would take to recover.
In fact, Jed Dietz, director of the Maryland Film Festival, which opened at the beginning of May, says 2015 ticket sales seemed as strong as ever.
Joe Edwardsen, owner of Joe Squared, the coal-fired pizza parlor, says business has been good on North Avenue since the curfew lifted. His second restaurant, close to the Inner Harbor, is a different matter. The clientele there includes tourists and people from Baltimore County who have tended to shy away from the city. And the American Visionary Art Museum near the Inner Harbor recorded a 30 percent decrease in admission revenue in May.
“It hurt every business,” says Frenkil. “But my guess is that people who are accustomed to patronizing these places, they will return.”
Then she describes a T-shirt she’s seen that captures glass-half-full resolve that animates the arts district.
“Visit Baltimore,” the lettering says. “It’s a riot.”
Dusman and Stone were in the Lazarus Center on the afternoon of Gray’s funeral, a little more than a week after Hopkins’s presentation. They were there to advise half a dozen students — two Baltimore natives, both African American, one student from New York and another from Ohio, and two foreign students from Bahrain and China — on how to tell the story of the past 100 years of North Avenue through art.
Dusman was describing what it was like after the 1968 riots, when the windows of the building they were now sitting in were barricaded with concrete blocks. Back then, administrators advised his fellow art students and him not to go to North Avenue. The students did so anyway. They didn’t see themselves as pioneers, crossing borders of race, income and expectations. The beer was cheap. The people were friendly.
“We loved it,” he says.
The April meeting, scheduled to last from 4 to 6 p.m., was growing distracted as texts came in about unrest in the city. Shortly after 5 p.m., an administrator walked in. MICA was closing, she said. They should all leave. And then she did something that would have been unthinkable in the bunkered mind-set of the past: She sent them out through the Lazarus Center’s glass doors onto North Avenue.
And into the irrepressible experiment in urban revitalization that is Baltimore’s arts district today.