`Better than a plain lot'

Art: Pigtown residents weigh in on the area's new outdoor sculpture, installed under the auspices of a Baltimore program that works to beautify neighborhoods.

October 05, 2001|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Some people thought the sculpture would be a pig. That would be fitting, after all, to mark the entrance to Pigtown and the city's newest gateway project.

But what appeared yesterday at the edge of the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood were two 18-foot-tall rusted cages with an iron gate, formerly known as "The Cerberus House," after the mythical three-headed dog that guarded Hades.

"How am I supposed to like it if I don't know what I'm looking at?" asked James Baldwin, standing at the gateway with a group trying to figure out the neighborhood's latest addition.

Artist Sam Christian Holmes, who created the sculpture in 1999 for Artscape, removed Cerberus from inside the enclosed gate before the installation on a plot of grass along Washington Boulevard, just west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

That was when the sculpture was transformed from the gateway to the underground to the gateway to Pigtown.

"I don't want to associate this wonderful little neighborhood with the underworld," said Holmes, a Howard University professor, who used chemicals to rust the gateway.

The sculpture is part of the city's gateways program, which aims to beautify the area with new signs, roadwork, landscaping, painting and possibly more artwork.

"Millions of people drive up and down our gateways every year, and we want them to look good for our residents and visitors," said Amy Hasson, deputy director of the city's Planning Department, who is known as the "gateway guru." "It's the first and last impression people get of the city."

Roads scheduled for improvement include Interstate 83, Russell Street, Edmondson Avenue and Wilkens Avenue, Hasson said. Bridges on Pulaski Highway and Eastern Avenue are due fresh paint and some variation on the message, "Welcome to Baltimore."

City officials could not estimate when the work would be finished, but said it would continue through next year. The cost is estimated at more than $54 million, from federal, state and local coffers.

Pigtown's gateway was donated by the artist, installed by the city and coordinated by the Washington Boulevard Main Street program, which works to rejuvenate the lagging commercial district.

The sculpture stands in an empty lot just west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard that soon will have trees and other foliage. Its backdrop is Pigtown's commercial district, which begins on the west side of the street with Al's Professional Cuts.

"I haven't figured it out yet, but it's OK," said Al Washington about the sculpture a few feet from his barbershop. "It's better than a plain lot. It's an improvement."

Down the street, where vacancies outnumber stores, stands Blue Note Variety, which has been open for more than 40 years. The store's most popular items are rat poison and used teaspoons that sell 10 for $1.

"Older people buy spoons for their house," said owner Dan Beecher, 73. They disappear from homes, he said, because young relatives steal them to cook drugs.

Beecher, 73, said that although he likes the idea of sprucing up the neighborhood, he's not optimistic that it will catch on.

"It's like beating a dead horse," said Beecher, who estimates he's been burglarized hundreds of times during his four decades on the boulevard. "There's nothing to draw people here."

Jack Danna, director of the Main Street program for Washington Boulevard, disagrees.

"This sends a signal not only to people in the community, but all over, that this community is changing," Danna said. "This will add to and brighten the area we're resuscitating."

Chris Ryer, executive director of the Washington Village-Pigtown Neighborhood Planning Council, which has offices three blocks away, said the ambiguity of the sculpture will help the neighborhood: "It's good to have the mystery out there. It gets people talking."

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