He has a plan for the Road to Nowhere

December 28, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

Ashley Milburn has a plan that is so harebrained it just might be brilliant. Either that or he is simply insane - "the crazy man," as even he himself concedes, "on the highway."

Given that we are standing on a wide and untrafficked shoulder of Baltimore's Highway to Nowhere as cars streak by us, I'm thinking: the latter.

But maybe not.

Like many, Milburn looks at the aborted freeway - which shoots westward from downtown but suddenly stops about 1 1/2 miles later, instead of continuing on as planned to link Interstate 70 and Interstate 95 - and sees its utter failure. He sees the ghosts of the once-stable neighborhoods that were ripped apart to make room for its six lanes. He sees the dreary gray concrete walls of the sunken highway - officially known as U.S. 40 - the abandoned houses and the weed-choked lots on the street level overhead.

But unlike many, Milburn sees something else, although currently it's only in his mind's eye: Murals and mosaics brightening up the concrete walls. Parks and community gardens replacing the empty lots. Shops and public art instead of boarded-up rowhouses.

Most of all, he sees nowhere turning into somewhere.

"This project is an attempt to put back something whole and connected," Milburn says. "Can we turn what is a defect into an asset, can what hurt us heal us?"

Answering that question became Milburn's thesis for a master's degree he recently earned at Maryland Institute College of Art. Titled "The Cultural Reclaiming of the Highway to Nowhere," Milburn's project is part oral history of West Siders displaced by the highway and part visionary tract on how Baltimore can embrace rather than turn its back on this misbegotten road.

I know, it sounds like one of those Well-Meaning Ideas That Will Never Come To Pass. My own first reaction was, Oh please, not another bad mural. There's something desperate and depressing about some of the wall paintings you see around town, their bright paint not so much masking the decay of their surroundings as highlighting it.

But what's attractive about Milburn's scheme is that it's not just about throwing gallons of paint over an eyesore. He takes a broader approach, and has thought deeply and creatively about this grim highway that most drive through or past as quickly as possible, on to better places.

Milburn has attracted some high-powered interest. Last month, the philanthropic Open Society Institute awarded him one of its coveted community fellowships. It gave him legitimacy, and, more importantly, more than $48,000 to help him get the project rolling. "God bless the OSI," the good-natured Milburn says. "They've given me the gift of time."

His project has also caught the eye of Randi Vega, the cultural affairs director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts. Vega had seen a presentation Milburn and other MICA community arts students had given about their master's degree projects, and his struck an immediate chord with her.

"I live in Southwest Baltimore and I travel on the Highway to Nowhere every day to work," she said. "When you travel back and forth on that road, you just can't help but think about all the lives that were disrupted by this highway - you're just reminded about that every day, how this big swath cut through all these people's lives."

When Vega heard that Milburn had won the OSI fellowship, she contacted him and has been trying to help him get things off the ground. They'll be meeting with a representative of the mayor's office next month.

Milburn makes for an unlikely hero of the highway. Bearish and 62 years old, he's only lived here for five years, having worked as an art teacher and administrator from his native Philadelphia to Salt Lake City. But while the strangeness of this stops-before-it-barely-starts highway tends to fade for long-time residents, perhaps it takes an outsider to start thinking about it at all, much less in a different way.

"As I grew into the community, I got really angry about the highway," he said. "There was such a healthy black community there. Then all of a sudden, boom, shot, gone. For 40 years, I think there's been this spiritual shock."

In many ways, West Baltimore has never recovered from the slashing through of its communities. It would be one thing if the highway had been extended as far as initially planned - political pressure from wealthier communities farther west put the kibosh on that - but instead, we've ended up with the worst of both worlds: Entire neighborhoods were demolished and their residents displaced, but we don't even have a full-length highway to show for it.

Milburn isn't sure what will happen next - he's an artist, not a developer; a thinker, not a fund-raiser. Mostly he wants to just light a spark that will get the rest of us to think about this scarred part of the city.

"I don't worry about funding," he says. "It's about galvanizing the community."

The first thing he wants to do is have a party on the highway, maybe in the spring. Yes, on it - not on one of the overpasses looking down on it, not in a nearby building. He takes me to the eastbound side of the highway around Monroe Street, near where it ends, and shows me where the white tents and the music and the food can be set up, and cars can be parked. I'd never noticed this huge unused bit of highway - I don't know if the plan was for some sort of big exit or entrance ramp, but it's empty and at a remove from the driving lanes.

Milburn thinks that if he can pull the party off, it could serve as a model for the highway's potential.

"If we can do that," he says, "we can do the rest of it."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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