I’ve come to witness any change at all in my neighborhood with a sense of trepidation and skepticism bordering on paranoia. As a resident of what my friends and I refer to as “The Station North Arts and Gentrification District,” no news is usually good news. So I was, at first, unhappy to see that “The Koban”—that old, weird police substation at the corner of Charles and Lanvale—was getting covered in permanent mosaics. For the past few years, the strange little structure had been used for rotating art projects. Mostly, I had grown used to it as a familiar idiosyncrasy of the streetscape. It was somewhere in between the goofy TARDIS from “Doctor Who” and one of those dystopian details that serves to remind the new bourgeois influx of our neighborhood’s more apparently flawed past than its whitewashed (or neon spray-painted) present.
And so, as with most Station North Arts and Entertainment District (SNAED) commissions, I first viewed the artwork as a piece of propaganda. In the earliest stages of the mosaic’s installation, before I knew who the artist was, the newly added mirrored text seemed to read “Police Give Hope.” That was a sentiment I obviously found problematic. Now that the mosaic is closer to completion, I realize that the sides read: “Police Give Hope PLEASE,” “Police Build Trust PLEASE,” “Police Honor All PLEASE,” and “POLICE Respect Life PLEASE.” It’s an uncommonly political and relevant piece of public art—reading more like a personal, desperate plea than the safe yet authoritative artwork we’re used to seeing in public spaces. And at night, it’s totally gorgeous—a cubist disco ball catching headlights, or perhaps a beacon.
The glass and tile mosaic is the work of Loring Cornish, a local artist who has a history of responding to the national and local problem of endemic police violence with DIY street interventions. Most notably, following the murder of Walter Scott in early April, Cornish hung a collection of black baby dolls from the trees outside his studio with text equating the police violence against unarmed black men with lynching. The piece generated controversy in local media, but the murder of Freddie Gray and the uprising that followed dominated the news and seemed to further validate the installation. Cornish was quick to respond to Gray’s death as well, hanging a painted sign outside his Fells Point gallery calling out “AMERICA STOP KILLING BLACK MEN.” There’s a visceral rage and palpable grief in that urgent handwriting—an emotional component Cornish was impressively able to translate to hard-edged mosaic now. That sign accumulated signatures of passersby, becoming an important visual index of the city’s recent trauma and subsequent solidarity.
It goes without saying that this mosaic is timely. And it’s awesome to see a symbol of policing failure reclaimed by an artist of color. I will however miss the old Koban as a conceptually loaded but flexible site for intervention. It’s one more of the area’s artist-run platforms for discourse and programming—one with seemingly endless potential for subversion—rendered static. But moments in history need permanent markers, and here Loring Cornish has made a monument. The Baltimore Uprising needs to be remembered with a visual culture that’s local, purposeful, and constructive; a defiant answer to the images in the mainstream media. I’m curious to see how this piece will (hopefully) be preserved. It sits on a lot owned by Amtrak, who together with the city and Beatty Development (of Harbor East fame) are planning to erect a massive upscale development there. There’s no solid timeline for the project, but preliminary plans call for that lot to be developed first.
At present, the mosaic almost blends in with the area’s cultivated signifiers of “transitional neighborhood,” promising something better to come. The future Cornish aspires for, however, seems thankfully antithetical to the visions of upscale dining and boutique hotels the other interventions in Station North seem to be summoning. And perhaps that dissonance is exactly what led to my initial knee-jerk reaction to distrust the mosaic before reading it in its entirety. That first association with propaganda is reinforced by the ongoing recoding of counterculture aesthetics as mainstream branding. Witness the “funky” graphic design of the marketing campaign for the nearby luxury condo/Starbucks/Suntrust development at 1209 N. Charles, which commands us to “Live Artfully!” Or Open Walls Baltimore artist Maya Hayuk’s legal battle with Starbucks over the unauthorized use of her imagery in promotional materials for Mini Frappuccinos. Walk half a block north from the Koban, and her cheery geometric forms “revitalize” a dilapidated parking garage. Walk two blocks south, and they’re printed on the sides of thousands of plastic cups. In the upcoming, thoroughly yuppified Station North, will Cornish’s work still be legible as a sign of resistance?
Perhaps I always liked the original Koban because it was already—in its own way—absurd. Like a surveillance box with an obviously cracked camera whose blue lights continue to flash with futility and pomp, or one of those chintzy-looking plastic-armored police Segways that look like a child’s “Judge Dredd” toy, the dilapidated box was a symbol of our bloated yet failed police state. It’s always been fun to point and laugh when something authoritative has been abandoned or looks ridiculous. Now that it’s been reclaimed with earnest intent for a message I’d like (but have a hard time) believing in, I have to say goodbye to that smug ironic satisfaction every time I walk by.
Of course, that ability to scoff at the absurd aesthetics of the Baltimore Police Department is largely due to the relative level of remove from their violence that I am privileged to as a white man. It goes without saying that I desperately wish police would “Respect Life” and “Honor All.” I just don’t trust that they will, even if we say “please.” I’d usually rather safely cling to my cynicism than get my hopes up. Maybe most Baltimoreans deserve optimism more than I enjoy sardonic vindication. Hope is in short supply, and I need it a little less than most of my neighbors. If the aspirational message of the mosaics can brighten the outlooks of passersby, it’s worth losing one more piece of accidental weird. And if the police department really does take its message to heart, I’m buying drinks for the artist and Station North’s board of directors.
For more information, visit stationnorth.org/projects/kobanproject.