Revitalize Baltimore with creativity

City Diary

July 10, 2002|By DAVID CRANDALL

BALTIMORE IS at a turning point, and for once we may have the tools to deal with it in ways that could have telling benefits for the city. The idea of cultural marketing as an economic magnet is currently receiving an important boost from a nationally recognized economic theorist.

Richard Florida's popular book, The Rise of the Creative Class, almost seems to have been written with Baltimore in mind. Its description of "urban grit alongside renovated buildings ... commingling of young and old, longtime neighborhood characters and yuppies, fashion models and bag ladies" could have been lifted from our streets.

What his and subsequent studies confirm is that these traits attract and develop innovative, artistic populations that fuel economic success. The keys to this attraction are diversity, a funky, unique identity, tolerance and affordability. Sound familiar?

Baltimore seems to be investing in different development strategies in different parts of town: big-box retailers and stadiums here, biotech development there. But Mr. Florida's suggestions are highly apropos as well, and much less expensive.

Baltimore's government and institutions should act now to get the word out on the city's charms for the new "creative class" and follow up with more action. Specifically, we should:

Encourage adventurous arts leadership.

Two of our major arts institutions -- Maryland Art Place and the Contemporary Museum -- are in transition to new leadership. Their departing directors shepherded them through important changes, for which we are grateful, but the hope is that the incoming leaders will take risks and explore the creativity that can come from actively engaging the growing Baltimore arts scene. Raising Baltimore's visibility in the arts increases our odds of attracting and encouraging daring, talented leadership.

Counteract the tendency toward "culturally monotonous" areas.

As Mr. Florida implies, enclaves eventually become boring. Why encourage them when the "creative class" model predicts losing economic consequences? Instead, we should develop "bumpy" communities (my term) embodying the maximum, not the minimum, of diversity in age, lifestyle, income and ethnicity -- and let these communities drive a sense of Baltimore's uniqueness.

These principles were written into the city's proposal for the Station North Arts District and are being realized in Highlandtown and other neighborhoods.

We should also heed Mr. Florida's thoughts about "disadvantaged" neighborhoods: "A lot of creativity comes from [them]. ... If you wipe them out, then you wipe out the ability not only for low-income folks to use the creativity that comes from their own communities, but you make it harder and harder for ... creative types to relocate [there] because they can no longer afford it."

Distinguish Baltimore from Washington.

In Mr. Florida's ranking of the top "creative" cities in America, the No. 8 spot -- above New York City -- is variously listed as "Washington, D.C.," "Baltimore/Washington" or "the greater Washington area." We need to distinguish Baltimore's diverse, creative identity, and tell the world what it's missing.

Promote our arts-related real estate to artists across the country.

Studio space available here costs a fraction of what artists in cities such as New York must pay, and the arts district initiative is already attracting artists from other cities. A successful working artist generates income through sales in other markets or even in other countries, and that money comes straight back to Baltimore. One Baltimore developer is adding artist space to a large commercial project, and more new studios are being planned. But this means we must act to prevent dilution of this market.

Raise awareness of Baltimore's avant-garde scene.

Cultural tourism takes all kinds. In addition to a talented, energetic corps of under-30 artists, some Baltimoreans embody or even exceed Mr. Florida's prescriptions:

A successful Web entrepreneur who also organizes a cutting-edge -- and widely recognized -- experimental music festival each year.

A downtown design firm that reserves a portion of its building as a site for new-genre performance and artwork.

Two twentysomething curators whose gallery is attracting positive attention in the national press.

The arts community has long known that these things make a difference. Now the weight of solid economic opinion supports this notion. Mr. Florida's fresh perspective is something the city should take advantage of, and quickly.

Today's writer

David Crandall is an artist and writer who lives in the Station North Arts District. He is on the editorial board of Link: A Critical Journal on the Arts in Baltimore and the World, and is co-editor of Radar, Baltimore's new monthly arts review.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues and events in Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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