Reinventing Baltimore: the next step

Our view: A proposed arts district on Baltimore’s west side could help revitalize the city’s struggling downtown

April 09, 2010

City officials backed by Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake are to be applauded for moving ahead with plans to create a new arts and entertainment district on Baltimore's West Side near downtown. The area has been pegged for redevelopment as a cultural hub for more than a decade, but the pace of change has been disappointing. Anything that helps jump-start the process is all to the good.

One might well ask why the area even needs a formal designation as an arts and entertainment district, given the ambitious renovation of the Hippodrome Theatre (which re-opened on the west side in 2003) and the imminent arrival there of the Everyman Theatre Company. Isn't it already on a path to becoming the cultural magnet its backers originally envisioned?

The answer is yes — and no. The city's official redevelopment initiative put great emphasis on securing a few large-scale revitalization efforts to anchor the project — such as the Hippodrome, the former Town theater on Fayette Street and the Bromo Seltzer Tower. But it may have underestimated the role played by communities of resident artists who in cities across the country have multiplied the effects of planned redevelopment with innumerable micro-development initiatives — galleries, workshops and other grass-roots enterprises — that create excitement and build the momentum for further change.

By creating a formal arts district, the city would be able to offer tax incentives, subsidies and other inducements to get the creative class to buy into underutilized areas like the west side and nurture them back to health. New York's Lower East Side and Washington's U Street corridor are but two examples of this kind of grass-roots development that has transformed once-blighted neighborhoods into trendy cultural meccas and tourist destinations.

Baltimore already has examples of this process in its budding Station North and Highlandtown arts districts. It was only a few years ago that the Charles Street corridor just north of Penn Station and East Baltimore's historic Highlandtown neighborhood were endangered communities threatened by stagnation and decay. But both areas began to turn around when an influx of young artists, drawn by relatively low rents and an abundance of studio space in long-abandoned factories, began settling there. Their presence led other members of the creative class — designers, graphic artists, craftspeople, etc. — to rediscover the communities' potential and enliven the areas' local businesses and night life. Both are still works in progress, but the progress is undeniable.

A similar transformation needs to happen if the redevelopment of the West Side is to succeed. Its central location between the Inner Harbor and the Convention Center and the city's two major sports stadiums ought to make it a natural arts and entertainment destination and a far more inviting place than the somewhat intimidating urban landscape it now presents to visitors. It needs more people strolling the avenues, dining in cafes, browsing in bookshops, visiting art shows and doing all the other things that a vibrant community makes possible.

The city lost out on a National Endowment for the Arts grant to underwrite planning for the project but is looking for the money elsewhere. Some of the things officials have yet to determine are the precise boundaries of the proposed district, what kinds of artists and business owners would be eligible for tax credits and other financial incentives, and whether it's possible to link the new district with the ones in Station North and Highlandtown. There are lots of details that must be worked out, but there's no question that if officials can pull it off, a thriving downtown arts and entertainment district would be a tremendous boon for Baltimore and its effort to reinvent itself as a 21st Century metropolis.

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