Seeing is believing

Editorial Notebook

October 21, 2006|By Ann LoLordo

Roaming their neighborhoods, cameras in hand, the amateur photographers captured the sublime and the sordid:

Kids cooling off in an open hydrant, rows of boarded up houses, a wall pockmarked by bullets, rows of respectable storefronts, homeowners on steps, abandoned lots, serene outdoor spaces.

The 120 novice shutterbugs - including students and senior citizens - had been sent out by a community arts organization to document their corner of Baltimore in anticipation of a Baltimore Museum of Art exhibit on urban European landscapes.

They came back with a portfolio of images from Harlem Park to Curtis Bay, Midtown-Edmondson to Charles Village, that depict life on Baltimore's streets in all its pain and glory. But what was most intriguing about this collection of streetscapes is the portrait of Baltimore that emerges from the images chosen by residents to represent their neighborhoods.

The choices are unexpected and inspired because they confound and surprise. They are scenes that we see every day and yet, for the "Real City, Dream City" participants, they reflect what they cherish about their neighborhood and what they want to see improved. They depict an urban aesthetic (a church spire, an ornate fountain in a neighborhood square); a neighborhood's charm (a white picket fence, flowerpots marching up a painted steps); its blight (graffiti, vacant buildings).

From the cumulus clouds massing over a Druid Heights roofline to the Hampden family waving from its front steps, the postcard images telegraph a feeling of community pride, missed opportunities and a sense of foreboding that emergency police lights convey. They are metaphors for what unites and divides a neighborhood.

"The good, the bad and the possible," says Peter Bruun, the Art on Purpose director who organized the project.

The project, at the Eubie Blake Cultural Center on Howard Street, produced hundreds of photographs. Pairs of iconic images of 10 city neighborhoods were then selected to be featured on postcards.

The choices for Morell Park photographers - a baseball diamond and a night shot of police cars with lights ablaze - were obvious, says Wayne Sherman, a project participant. "Our community, I feel, is like on the fence right now," he says.

The photographs provoked a conversation about neighborhood needs and a consensus developed for a recreation center and pool. "This art project has taught us something," Mr. Sherman says.

In Waverly, newcomers and old-timers chose photos of two children on a community-built playground and a desolate corner marred by graffiti. Community concerns were a list-long: pedestrian safety, Greenmount beautification, no vacant houses, space for youth, public art, clean streets, gang-free.

As project organizers distributed the postcard images at venues around the city, they became a collective message board for Baltimoreans:

Let's believe in the dream again.

I'm happy to live in a community where I feel safe.

All I want is for my community to be drug-free.

People need to find one another, their ideas, their common points of intersection and relate to one another.

The photographs generated a shoebox of responses that should be required reading for city officials. The photographers and exhibit curators aren't content to sit and admire their views of city life. They intend to use them as a storyboard for the Baltimore they want to see.

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