Digging the raw edges of Mobtown

City Diary

January 26, 2000|By Rafael Alvarez

DERELICT buildings are unburied corpses and Baltimore is littered with the dead.

In a tune about aging American cities -- in which the middle doesn't hold and momentum moves toward ghetto or gentrification -- the songwriter John Gorka sings: "I just want to make enough to buy this town and keep it rough."

I drive through my hometown and daydream about the resurrections I would perform upon the ruins of Mobtown if I had the money of a Peter Angelos, an Ed Hale or even my buddy Willie Mattricciani and his booming fence business.

I would build the Muddy Waters Memorial Library of American Music in the rubble on either side of Attman's Delicatessen on East Lombard Street.

I would save Memorial Stadium from the teeth of the maul -- "Time Will Not Dim the Glory of Their Deeds" -- and let old people play softball and grow vegetables in the outfield.

I would buy buildings and keep them safe until they told me what they wanted to be.

I swear to squander a fortune to do these things.

The things that the sculptor Marc Braun is struggling to achieve in a 19th-century funeral home carriage house at 1008-1010 Hollins St.

I first met Mr. Braun in 1989 when he and friends were reciting "Frankenstein" in a candlelit series of midnight readings at a West Baltimore Street loft.

Since then, Braun has traveled through South Africa and Morocco, the Middle East, Spain and a thousand cafes in between.

"I left the United States knowing I was going to Israel to live forever," says Mr. Braun, who earned his keep on a kibbutz by making a huge swinging gate leading to the fields. "When you leave Baltimore, you take a [compelling] illusion of the city with you. And even though you know its going to evaporate when you return, you come back anyway."

Braun came back to the defunct stables and warehouse of the old Joseph Cook Funeral Home, which, along with its black and gold sign that rattled in the wind, was razed not long ago near the corner of West Baltimore and Schroeder streets.

The Cook warehouse -- where wood from coffin crates lines the ceiling along with bridles for horses that pulled hearses on carriage wheels -- runs 150 feet deep by 28 wide with sloping, 9-to-16 foot ceilings on each of the two floors.

The oldest identifiable date is "1871" stamped into an elevator wheel cast by the Bates Co. on President Street.

"I can't stop digging the raw industry of Baltimore," says the 36-year-old Beltsville native. "The raw age that has settled over everything."

Mr. Braun purchased his raw slice of Hollins Street for the price of a new Cadillac Eldorado.

"This building will live again, and I will live richer because of it," says Braun. "When you revitalize something, you gain the life that it's had, plus the life you're giving it, plus the life that results from that combination."

Inside the Cook building, Mr. Braun envisions a stage for performances, a coffee house, a modern-day blacksmith's studio to bend remnants of the industrial age to his artistic will, and in time, room to live.

"I don't know how I'll do it," he says, an answer that hardens the hearts of loan officers when poets show up with unrevealed business plans. "I don't have any money and I don't expect anything from anyone. But when you commit to something good, someone good always comes along and says: `I want to help.' "

Mr. Braun's neighbors in Sowebo are a combination of working class, poor and weird. They are good white people and bad white people. Black folks, good and bad. He is surrounded by the insane, pigeon breeders, butchers, puppeteers, and a gay guy who plays Cher records at high volume.

The area is trying to regain an artistic footing knocked loose by crime and the loss of the Cultured Pearl and Gypsy Cafe restaurants. Mr. Braun senses a recent decrease in brazen drug dealing and lauds city cops for caring.

"But the wrong element is always trying to insinuate itself," he says.

Before leaving, I kneel at a low table on the second floor -- where Mr. Braun has made a room out of Libyan carpets, washtubs turned into flower pots, and a big plastic hose that pulses warm air into the freezing warehouse -- to sift through sketches of nudes he has drawn over the years.

Doors from a thousand demolished buildings line the walls, and I can see the roof atop the B&O Railroad Museum roundhouse.

I select a sketch of a woman at rest before a vanity and tell him: "This is our Paris. -- This is our Jerusalem."

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