Art as economic development

Opening: Artists are on the front lines in an effort to revitalize a midtown neighborhood.

February 15, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Bring in the artists for an emergency operation: urban revival in one of Baltimore's most forlorn patches.

At the request of Mayor Martin O'Malley, a small army of artists is to descend today on a bedraggled, crime-ridden area of midtown Baltimore for the opening of the city's new Arts and Entertainment District. The debut arts district, called Station North, is the latest experiment by officials to try to improve run-down city neighborhoods.

"As another mayor told me, artists are the Marines of economic development because they'll go where others won't," O'Malley said.

Station North is scheduled to kick off with an all-day street festival today called "Gotta Have Art." City officials are hoping that artists can help revive run-down parts of the city by infusing new energy and investment in derelict buildings.

City and state leaders chose a 100-acre area in midtown last year as the first official district. The designation means that tax incentives are offered to artists who choose to live within its borders - Pennsylvania Station, Howard Street, Greenmount Avenue and 20th Street.

The program also offers tax breaks to theater owners in the district or those who open a business there. Real estate developers who build housing or work quarters for artists can qualify for tax relief.

J. Kirby Fowler Jr., a lawyer and head of the mayor's advisory board on the Station North district, said he wants the public to get behind the idea. "People have to envision great things can happen here," he said.

Now that officials have done the paperwork, artists say they are ready to make their mark.

Artist Margot Curran, 41, started by splashing some color onto a public space. As she glued computer printouts of animal faces onto a boarded-up window at 331 E. Lanvale St. this week, a group of children came up to watch on their way home from school. Among them was Kevin Derricks, 9, who told her that he used to live in the empty rowhouse.

"That kind of blew me away, to think that all those houses were homes," Curran said.

Working a block away at 1721 Barclay St. were Jason Hughes, 25, and Matthew Paulson, 27, students at Maryland Institute College of Art. Their untitled art project involved picking up trash and putting it into sealed plastic bags which were stuffed into windows of a vacant rowhouse - giving the house a hint of color.

Hughes said the idea was to "re-present" trash on the block so that it looked colorful and quiltlike from a distance. The bags have attracted smiles, stares and comments, he said.

The two artists said they hoped the simple act of collecting trash for a creative concept would say something to the impoverished neighborhood.

"It's addressing the potential of the neighborhood, seeking solutions instead of addressing problems," Hughes said. "People say, `I could have done that,' and that's exactly the point."

Curran, Hughes and Paulson are to be participants in the festival's "Door & Window Project" to show work of more than 40 artists on some vacant houses.

Much of the festival is springing from artists, theaters, churches and galleries in the area. The New Second Baptist Church choir is scheduled to give a concert; Heritage CinemaHouse is to feature live comedy; and Area 405, an old brewery building, which some resident artists recently took over as a workshop and gallery, is to present its inaugural show.

At 405 E. Oliver St., the 1848 brewery building is characteristic of many closed warehouses and light industrial structures in the district. It gives James Vose, Stewart Watson and the other artists who live there lots of indoor "roughspace," as they call it. They also inherited piles of old tools and industrial leftovers to clear out or use in their work.

No one is expecting Station North to become another Soho soon, but Vose and Watson said they are putting faith in small changes. Their expectations for now are modest, "a subtle change of environment and a little extra activity," as Vose put it.

The city's goal of attracting artists to the district will be accompanied by rezoning to allow them to live and work in the same building, Fowler said. Another benefit of rezoning, he said, would be legalizing sidewalk cafes - and adding to street life.

Fowler said two redevelopment projects are under way that will feature some form of artist lofts - a new apartment building in the 1700 block of N. Calvert St. and renovation of the former Railway Express Building on St. Paul Street.

At least one artist has heard the city's call. On the west edge of the district, at 106 W. North Ave., a painter and sculptor who identifies himself as "roycrosse" lives and works in a rowhouse that he moved into last summer. As a new arrival from Newark, N.J., he said, the prospect of an arts district drew him.

A work by roycrosse, called "Up North," small brightly colored chairs - yellow, red, green, pink, and white - hangs from trees in the North Avenue median. He said the playful arrangement for the festival "is a visual statement about the tranformation of the area."

Fowler said transformation of acres, buildings and blocks of vacant space is the idea, but he knows it won't be easy. Pointing to a vacant lot on East Oliver Street abutting Green Mount Cemetery, he expressed the hope that it might be a sculpture garden someday.

"I don't know why I'm so interested in this little area, but I am," he said. "There are a lot of possibilities."

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