Memory Palace: New home to the Maryland Film Festival, The Parkway Theatre reflects and refracts Baltimore

Parkway Theatre architect Steve Ziger of Ziger/Snead Architects is a Jeff Goldblumian figure—dapper, excitable, full of facts, obsessive, inviting, self-aware, a little nervous, and at least right now, less than 48 hours before the theater's April 20 opening gala for donors and other muckety-mucks, quite overwhelmed.

Teaming up with Maryland Film Festival director Jed Dietz on a tour of the nearly completed building, Ziger, ultimately responsible for the careful curation of the Parkway and embracing its decay as best as aesthetically possible, bounces between enthusiasm for all they've gone through and done already and rueful observations about what must still be completed for the festival's new home. The light switch plates, for example, are supposed to be the MdFF's characteristic deep pink and they aren't yet, he observes—and oh, please watch your step and try not to bother everybody still working, Ziger says as we pass between a few workers resting on the floor of the lobby, scraping gunk off aged, grimy tile.

The Parkway (full name: The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway Film Center) is a three-theater movie house that radically reinvents the 100-plus-year-old Parkway Theatre in Station North while demolishing and reimagining the old "Chicken Box" building next door, dropping a savvy film center on the corner of North Avenue and N. Charles Street that contains the multitudes of stories and the layers of history of the building and ideally, according to Ziger and Dietz, all of cinema.

The original Parkway owner, Henry Webb, essentially "bet the ranch" on the building, Dietz says. The enthusiasm and naivete of Webb and his Parkway designer, Oliver Birkhead Wight, are apparent in many elements of the building: It initially had box seats associated with live theater but usually not at the movies; and on the second floor, a tea room and fireplace, presumably a place where women could gather alone or with children. The ways in which people would experience movies together wasn't yet clear.

The year the Parkway was built, 1915, was a transformative time for movies. It marked the release of D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation," a film school staple known for its aesthetic contributions—introducing ambitious cross-cutting and complex narrative—and for its rugged, racist propaganda, glorifying the Ku Klux Klan and presenting African-Americans as crazy-eyed rapists. The film ultimately boosted the KKK's profile and even received praise from President Woodrow Wilson, who infamously described Griffith's epic as "like writing history with lightning." The success of "The Birth of a Nation" is hard to conceive of today—imagine if militia-man cult-classic novel "The Turner Diaries" had been imbibed by millions, unquestioned and deemed the most important piece of art and entertainment of its time.

Dietz refers to "The Birth of a Nation" as "reprehensible" more than once when it comes up during the tour, so it's clear how the Parkway's past and movie worship in general are inextricably tied to the movie. The resurrected Parkway cannot escape all of that, and neither can Station North, the recently invented neighborhood that houses the Parkway, and previously a part of the city known for its black nightlife and culture, now morphed into a marketable "arts district" intent to court tourists and those with a lot of dough.

The Parkway's design implicates itself in this fraught moment for Baltimore. Nostalgia informs the building, it doesn't infect it—this is not a naive tribute to the movie houses of the past. Ziger incorporated many of the building's original and past designs into this new one. There was a set of "rules," Ziger says, for how he approached the design: If something old was intact and safe, then they kept it as is; if something was old and unsafe or "in bad shape," then it had to be replaced or recreated. The outside of the building where they recreated the 1915 marquee and facade was "the one exception" to these rules, Ziger adds.

Most other additions and updates to the Parkway, meanwhile, are "emphatically new," Ziger says. Many walls are newly painted, for example, and in the main, two-level, 400-plus seat theater, the seats and railings recall a modern, moneyed multiplex—lots of leg room and seats with tall backs—while the high-ceilinged, baroque egg of a space looks as if it is falling apart gloriously, with a mix of curdled white and doo-doo brown painted walls and lots of Italian Renaissance-referencing ornamentation all around. It was relatively easy to fuss with and fuse the parts of the theater's past because in its last incarnation as the Five West Art Theatre, from 1956 to 1978, very little had been done to it—money was tight then and maintenance was mostly pragmatic rather than cosmetic.

"The good news is [the Five West owners] didn't have money to do much," Dietz observes, wryly.

And in the '80s, when the lobby was a Korean grocery, the actual theater was closed off entirely—so it remained largely untouched for the last 30 years.

Other adjustments are unsubtle and not even trying to trick the eye. In the area near the bar that feeds into the main lobby, steel girders frame a large, jagged hole in the wall for egress. Ziger intended changes to the building to be "honest and direct"—and when he says that, his voice jumps, clearly thrilled at the chance to perform a kind of architectural "fuck it," to make a big hole in the wall and call it an entrance and get away with it.

The exterior of the building lays bare the Parkway's conceit—a jumbled trip from 1915 to 2017 where one entrance reflects what it looked like then, and another what things are like now. The environmental graphics and other signage are all designed by Baltimore's Post Typography and on the second and third floors are two smaller, sci-fi-like theaters, each of which seats about 80. They are eerily quiet, soundproofed basically, which they'd need to be to have two movie theaters right above busy North Avenue.

The Parkway has more in common with some of the city's more recent site-specific works that turn their locations into part of the art—The Contemporary's exhibits at the Peale Museum, and the Hutzler Brothers Palace, and the former KAGRO building neighboring the Parkway, and the nightclub in the mind's eye project about Odell's from Wickerham & Lomax—than a brand-new building. It doesn't seek to reify the past exactly, or pretend things are the same, but rather nod to what the building once was. I imagine some people, used to new buildings being shiny and well, "new," will see it as "incomplete."

Depending on your point of view and your tolerance for development or level of cynicism about the changes to Station North, the Parkway—especially from the outside, where it wildly transitions from an old-fashioned movie theater to a big hulking white cube sort of thing—may look like the future slowly devouring the past; or the stubborn past and the feckless future fighting it out; or perhaps the past holding on and refusing to give in, leaching into the present. Certainly a resurrected movie theater originally built at the start of cinema's heyday, which was ostensibly kicked off by "The Birth of a Nation," suggests the past is not even the past.

At one point during the tour, Ziger rightly invokes the "Disney-fication" of the past with contempt.

The Parkway's motto is "Film for everyone. Every day," an adjustment to MdFF's "Film for everyone." That's ambitious, and drags along with it the question of who exactly is "everyone" (beyond, say, Hopkins and MICA students who'll be using the theater for film classes). Eric Hatch, director of programming for MdFF and now for the Parkway too, wants the theater to nod to the populist vision of "the arthouse" from the recent past.

"While we certainly hope to sell tickets—and popcorn, and coffee, and beer—we can bring these films to town first and foremost for their cultural value. And we hope to do this in a way that will feel like home to younger moviegoers in search of alternative fare; hardcore cinephiles; and enthusiasts of genre, cult, and 'midnight' fare," Hatch tells me a few days after the opening gala. "These are the groups that used to be the backbone of arthouse filmgoing, all of whom I feel have been somewhat neglected in favor of less adventurous patrons by Baltimore theaters over the last few decades."

What is almost entirely absent from Ziger and Dietz's tour and Hatch's plan is all of that Station North rhetoric you hear too much: how great this will be for the city at large and how much change it will bring and blah blah blah.

That didn't stop others from doing that, though.

"What an economic engine this is going to be for this part of the city," Mayor Catherine Pugh, who recently vetoed the economic engine for the city known as the $15 minimum wage bill, said of the nonprofit Parkway at the gala preview on April 20.

This larger economic plan is hard to ignore. A fancy new building in Station North is never just a fancy new building. The Centre Theater, across North Avenue on the other side of Charles Street, opened in 2015 as part of a MICA and Johns Hopkins film program collaboration, which will also use the Parkway.

On the day of the MdFF's V.I.P. event where Pugh praised the Parkway, Kevin Brown, the owner of SNAC - Station North Arts Cafe at 1816 N. Charles St., next to the Parkway, stared at a dumpster that was moved away from the theater and placed in front of SNAC.

"They didn't want to look at it I guess through their little glass bubble so they moved it down the street," Brown says a week before the MdFF begins showing films near his other business, Nancy at 131 North Ave., in the MICA Studio Center. The past 18 months or so of construction made parking on N. Charles tough, which affected SNAC's bottom line, he says.

Brown opened SNAC in 2006 and Nancy in 2013 and is on the Station North board of directors, so none of it's a surprise and he seems to be laughing through it all. After our interview, he posted a video to Facebook of me and CP photographer J.M. Giordano walking down North Ave. titled "white men walking"—he is a charming, resourceful thorn in the side of the city establishment.

He thinks the Parkway should have invited local business owners like him to the V.I.P. event: "Not that I was looking for a party invitation—I've had all the cheese cubes and meatballs and chicken wings I can imagine, so it was just an observation that I thought needed to be just put out there," he says. "I've put up with your stuff the last 18 months during construction and I just want an olive branch."

After he put that out there, he says, Dietz did meet up with him to talk.

"He said he wasn't trying to slight me, he wasn't trying to be uncivil, and that this was a party for their donors," Brown says. "My response was, 'I'm in your immediate peripheral. I'm your next door neighbor.'"

Dietz invited Brown to another public event at the building but Brown will not attend: "Not going. I'll take a pass."

Brown does admit that MdFF were at first his "competitor" when it came to the Parkway. His development company, Station North Arts Development, had also put in a bid for the building. His vision was "a music venue with a movie theater as well, and a restaurant, bar, and rooftop bar."

His issues with the Parkway are representative of larger issues in Station North where the "legacy residents" are only considered, "after the fact," he says.

"I've seen plans in Station North for a while but for the first time I'm seeing actions plans, I'm seeing shovels in the grounds, ribbon-cuttings, groundbreakings, which is great and wonderful, but you have to do that in a way that is inclusive, and there's not so much of that," he says. "I don't have a problem with new development if new development is inclusive, that includes legacy residents—people that were here first, people who want to stay if they want, people who should not be displaced because of gentrification."

The word he comes back to is "parity"—no businesses or developer should be treated better than any other, but that isn't how it works especially when it comes down to how black businesses are treated versus white businesses.

"I think the film festival is a good thing for the neighborhood, it's been pushed around and it's finally got a home," he says. "But it needs to be more aware of what the African-American community's needs are."

"MdFF welcomes feedback and wants to be a good neighbor," Molly Dressel of Abel Communications, who is doing P.R. for the festival, writes in response to these critiques. "They're committed to working with local businesses and the community overall."

Dressel also offers up this list as evidence of the Parkway as a good neighbor: the many free public events tied to the fest; the 14 Baltimore City residents hired by MdFF; hundreds of free screening vouchers handed out to local businesses and schools and the showcasing of Baltimore City students' work during MdFF and plans to make that part of the planned mix of emerging and repertory work; and the Parkway Perks program which will "drive business to neighborhood companies."

"The 1800 block is always the last to find out about things," Sherman Smith, who runs Perfect Touch Barber Shop at 1819 N. Charles St., right across from SNAC, says. "Before the construction started, [MdFF] should have come around to the businesses and got input to see how it would affect us. They came and spoke to me after everything had got started, but prior to it getting started, I didn't know anything."

The Parkway construction "affected a lot businesses" including Perfect Touch, Smith says. "That whole year of nowhere to park and the street being blocked off—it affected me."

He has been at this location for 12 years. Before Perfect Touch, the building was abandoned and owned by Anthony Triplin, the late owner of the nightclub Gatsby's next door, where Smith worked and sometimes DJ'd. He saw an opportunity, fixed up the building, and made it into Perfect Touch and along the way, he says, helped fix the block a bit: "Since I been here, I cleaned this whole block up a lot."

He says he had fewer customers due to the construction, which nearly sunk him. Smith is going to move out and find a new location for Perfect Touch soon—he doesn't want to get run out quickly and prefers to leave on his own terms and wants to climb out from under the bills he struggled to pay during the construction.

"How do we get compensated now that you've got that building up?" he asks. "I'm all for changing the community, but you also got to think about the businesses that've been around—change can be a good thing and it's OK to do things, just put everybody into what's going on."

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