The problem isn't if Thomas Dolby fails, it's that we still don't know how Hopkins intends for him to succeed

Thomas Dolby responded, via Twitter, to our story about his new position at Johns Hopkins University, with the same grace he displayed in the interview.

In person, Dolby had a lot to say about the possibility of failure in Station North. "I'm very attracted to things I'm a newbie in and acquiring new skills," he said. "And in fact when I get really good at something I get really tired of churning out cookie-cutter projects in that area. I'd rather do something where I feel I'm out of depth."

He went on to say: "I'm really not a politician, so there's a big risk that I'll fall flat on my face doing this. With a lot of the stuff that I do there is a lot of risk I'll fall on my face because they're things that don't have a precedent and don't have an obvious model, which is why I try to do it in the first place."

I really commend the humble attitude of the tweet and these sentiments. But I think Dolby might have it backward. My concern was not that he might fail, but, rather, that he might succeed. Or more specifically, that Johns Hopkins hasn't been particularly clear with the community as to what success might look like. It's possible that Hopkins' plans will help the community that currently stands in Station North, but given the lack of details or communication that's happened so far, it's unclear whether Hopkins means to work with the existing community or replace it.

For his part, Dolby offered up another vision of success while we were in Canteen. "I would imagine that cafe society like this is going to expand," he said. "So far, it's nice that it's one-off places like this and it's not Starbucks and the rest of it, but that's going to be a bit of a battle."

That is an interesting point, that it is "going to be a bit of a battle" to keep the Starbucks away. He went on to say, "I'm aware those battles take place, but certainly, one of the reasons I picked Fells Point to live is it wasn't all chains and brands, whereas over in Harbor East seemed to be a more predictable selection of names. I don't know how those questions will get sorted out but certainly it would be really nice if it had a personal feel to it like this place does."

It was telling that Dolby was not willing to move into Station North himself (which could have been seen as a sign of confidence).

But the idea of a Silicon Valley for the arts, as he said in the story, seems dominant.

"I think the pitch is going to be, it's a great area, it can double as [Washington] D.C. for exteriors but [there's] a lot of personnel [to make your production]. Cheap rent, flexible enough to to build out ot specifications. I would like to go to Silicon Valley and pitch it there or New York and basically make a case about that. I'm a storyteller, I hope I can put a spin on what's going on here that will make it more attractive and bring them in."

While it was troubling that Dolby was going to be "spinning" the virtues of the area, while unaware of its venues, bars, coffee shops, warehouse spaces, galleries, or artists*, it is, again, ultimately a minor detail compared to Johns Hopkins' overall plan. He is the man they brought in to sell the plan, he is the "culture czar," and, sure, he may fail. But the question is more about what he and the university mean when he says the project could "turn this neighborhood around."

* This post originally noted that Dolby said he was not aware of Matmos. In an email, he wrote that he did know the musical duo, one of whose members, Drew Daniel, is also a professor at Hopkins. Upon review of the tape, we realize that when Matmos was mentioned and Dolby said "who?" that it could have been because he did not hear the name. City Paper regrets the error. 

Copyright © 2019, Baltimore City Paper, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Privacy Policy