Do arts districts live up to their hype?

They're seen as a cure-all for urban blight, but there's a right way and a wrong way to go about creating them.

  • David Bielenberg, beside a guitar sculpture on North Avenue at Charles Street, is executive director of the flourishing Station North Arts & Entertainment District.
David Bielenberg, beside a guitar sculpture on North Avenue… (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina…)
May 14, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

"Ha!" reads a colorful poster near the Creative Alliance, the letters inscribed inside an oversize exclamation point. A few blocks farther, there is that enigmatic message again: "Ha!." And around the corner: "Ha!"

But though the exuberant punctuation mark indicates that the viewer is inside the Highlandtown Arts & Entertainment District, there's little to laugh about these days.

In 2003, the city waved the policy equivalent of a magic wand and declared that a new arts district had been created in an area encompassing Highlandtown, Patterson Park, and parts of Canton and Greektown. Then, officials sat back and waited for hordes of artists to turn up and bring about urban renewal.

Seven years later, they're still waiting.

Arts and entertainment districts, and the so-called "creative class" of sculptors, musicians and entrepreneurs they're designed to attract, have become seen as a sure-fire solution for urban blight.

Baltimore has two arts districts — one that is booming, and one that is not. Meanwhile, the city is considering creating a third enclave on the west side, to be anchored by the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center and aimed at revitalizing the Howard Street corridor.

Whether a west-side arts district would flourish like the Station North Arts & Entertainment District, or flounder like Ha! is unclear. Some worry that even — or especially, if — a new district succeeds, it would create competition for already scant audiences and supplies.

"Our arts district is not funded," says Christopher Ryer, executive director of the Southeast City Development Corp, which operates Ha!

"There's also no structure within the city to administer it. It's pretty hard to run a program with literally no budget at all and no support. So, creating another arts district — especially one downtown that might have much greater resources — would be threatening."

The experts say that a midsize city such as Baltimore can potentially support multiple arts districts, if they're properly designed and run.

"I'm suspicious of people who suggest that there is a limiting factor, that a city can have too many arts districts," says Enrique Silva, assistant professor of city planning and urban affairs at Boston University.

"It's like asking if a city can have too many people. Instead of competition, multiple arts districts can generate synergies. Just make sure to involve artists in the planning process, don't put the districts too close together and don't make them compete for the same audience."

Not every arts district has to cultivate hipsters, he says. Others can succeed by appealing to senior citizens or families. Just look at the Broadway theater district in New York.

Kathy Robertson, director of the West Side Initiative for the Baltimore Development Corp., says that planning for a third district is "in its infancy," but that the new venture could have a distinct personality.

"Station North might be more the area where you find visual artists, and the west side might be more of a theater center," she says.

The new district's character would largely be determined by its boundaries, which have not been drawn. But Robertson says the area under consideration includes vacant storefronts and warehouses with the potential to be transformed into performance halls and studios.

"Our planning goals include looking at the real estate, infrastructure and cultural resources that already exist," says Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts.

In a way, the city chose wisely when it designated the corridor along Charles Street and North Avenue as its first arts district in 2002. The neighborhood possessed many of the elements necessary for success.

Every year, the Maryland Institute College of Art graduates hundreds of gifted — and cash-strapped — young artists, who find in the blocks surrounding campus a plentiful supply of affordable housing, public transportation and inexpensive coffeehouses where they can brainstorm with friends.

"Artists were already living in Station North before it became an arts district," says David Bielenberg, the district's executive director. "Some of the artists got together on their own and cooperatively developed buildings. It's been an arts-centric area for years, and the city wanted to encourage and develop that focus."

Now, the once-decaying streets seem on the verge of turning a corner. A new troupe, gallery or nightclub seems to open in the district every few months. And though portions of the neighborhood are still ramshackle, there's now a reassuring and steady flow of foot traffic during the days and on weekend nights.

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