Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake never seems totally comfortable around Baltimore's arts community. She is uncharacteristically stilted and tends to stumble over her words.
"Here at Charles and North, the former New York Fried Chicken takeout is now the Station North Chicken Box," she says, standing beneath the Gaia mural that was the centerpiece of the Open Walls project. "Now that's what I call creativity."
The line was a painful clunker, but it was also revealing. Whether she likes it or not, the mayor has to be here today at 1 W. North Ave. for the opening of the Station North Chicken Box, the new home of Station North Arts and Entertainment Inc. (SNAE) and the Annex Theater, because there are a lot of high-powered hopes riding on the back of this rather ragtag arts district in the very center of the city.
"I was on a panel with the mayor of Austin," Rawlings-Blake says. "You know, their tag line is 'Keep Austin Weird.' I told the mayor we were gonna steal that away. I said 'Baltimore, we have our own uniqueness and creativity and quirkiness,' I said, 'We're gonna steal that, um, that moniker from Austin.' So I always enjoy my time in Station North. It's always interesting, never a dull moment."
Never a dull moment, except maybe for this one-the big fake scissors aren't exactly cutting edge. And, come to think of it, there's not a lot of weirdness around either. I mean here is Kevin Brown, the owner of the Station North Arts Cafe, wearing a leather vest, and Evan Moritz, a member of the Annex Theater who has kind of "weird" hair sometimes and puts on avant-garde theater. Liam Flynn, one of the founding members of the radical Red Emma's collective and pub owner, is standing back by a tree, scowling. And it's still North Avenue, so there is a strange assortment of random passersby, though perhaps fewer than usual-as SNAE executive director Ben Stone notes in a wry aside, even the giant blue-and-yellow parrot that normally screams from the sidewalk of Pearson's Florist across the street is absent.
"The vibrancy we see in Station North is what we need in order to grow Baltimore by ten thousand families over the next decade," the mayor says.
Those ten thousand families are the mayor's hope for a legacy; she has repeatedly pledged to bring them to the city, and now here she is, far from her own comfort zone, saying that North Avenue's "vibrancy" might succeed where other efforts have failed. (Though population is now growing again for the first time in a half-century, it is not at the rate the mayor would hope for.)
The people standing in the heat today are the ones providing the arts infrastructure that may just have a hope of drawing artists-by which they mean musicians, visual arts, actors, directors, dancers, writers, people who sit at bars and say they are writers, dancers, directors, etc., and a whole assortment of other folks generally referred to as "creative types"-to the city. "There are many people at the Copy Cat or who go to Metro or the Windup Space who aren't artists and don't identify that way," says Charlie Duff, of the nonprofit developer Jubilee Baltimore. "That's art doing its job, which is to engage the public."
Duff is in Germany during the opening of the Chicken Box, but if you look around today, you can get a pretty good picture of some of the big players shaping the area. Here's Mike Shecter, the boyish-looking developer with tousled red hair and sunglasses wrapped around the back of his neck; beside him is Carolyn Frenkil, his partner in the North Avenue Market, across the street from the Chicken Box. The bow-tied Fred Lazarus, outgoing president of MICA, stands beside the rotund and mustachioed Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano, who rubs his belly as he greets Jane Brown and Laurens "Mac" Maclure of the Deutsch Foundation. Young, bearded Ben Stone stands off to the side with Rebecca Chan, SNAE's only other employee. They are both hosts and guests of honor.
There is always the worry that when the developers and politicians come out with the fake scissors-when money comes in and the mayor tells you to keep it weird-that things are done anyway. We've seen it again and again: An area like Station North creates a grassroots "vibrancy" that comes from a mix of low rents, open space, and young artists. Whether Greenwich Village, Chelsea, Dupont Circle, or even Mount Vernon in Baltimore, the general model is gentrification. Let the "artists" come in as "pioneers" and make things all spiffy and stylish, by driving out those pesky original settlers. And then you price out the artists.
But everyone involved in Station North is aware of the cliched nature of that version of gentrification and they all seem committed-or at least give lip service-to a different model here. Even Antero Pietila, the author of Not in My Neighborhood and one of the city's greatest critics of gentrification, told the Greenmount Avenue blog that "gentrification is a loaded term. This is just recycling." He went on to say, "the artistic community is not easily co-optable, certainly not the edgiest fringe. No worries there."
Even if there are no worries, there's still an acute consciousness about the danger inherent in such a situation. In fact, just the previous weekend, SNAE hosted a conference, Artists and Neighborhood Change, to address the issues of gentrification the week before their office opened. "We want to keep the artists," Paul Graziano said at the conference. With 30,000 vacant properties in the city, people like Graziano are interested in bringing in people. And so are at least some of the people who are now called "legacy" residents-the ones who were here long before the artists. At the second day of the gentrification conference, Greenmount West resident Dwight Hargrave said his biggest concern was that a vacant house beside his house meant that his homeowner's insurance was cancelled. He is African-American, but he said he wanted people beside him, "whatever color they are." His brother, Dale Hargrave, the President of the Greenmount West Community Association, often makes the same point. The neighborhood population declined by more than 50 percent between 1950 and 1990, according to census data. "You have to work with whoever is willing to work with you," he says. "We need everybody to stay engaged."
Still, many of the other formerly industrial neighborhoods that have been significantly redeveloped-Federal Hill, Hampden, Fells Point, and Canton-were all predominantly white neighborhoods. The neighborhoods that make up Station North-Greenmount West, Charles North, and Barclay- are among the first traditionally African-American neighborhoods to see such an influx of money, and many are worried that bringing in artists means bringing in white people.
And of course, not all of the "artists" are happy with what is happening either. Visual and performance artist and City Paper contributor Michael Farley was standing on Oliver Street outside of Area 405, across the street from the newly developed Jubilee houses and the City Arts Building where he lives, puffing away on an electric cigarette. "I'm having an existential crisis," he said, just before he was supposed to speak on the panel. "Ever since Ben asked me to do this, I've been thinking about the neighborhood and I realized that it isn't the neighborhood I fell in love with 10 years ago."
Onstage, he was more blunt: "Station North is dead," he said. "People came in from the suburbs and brought their values." Farley's comments were the lightning rod of the conference, but not everyone entirely disagreed.
"I'm worried about the same stuff that Michael is," Charlie Duff, who was the driving force behind the City Arts Building, says. "I don't know how to preserve the full vibrancy of the scene. But a neighborhood with 50 percent vacancy needs people. We can argue about who are the best people to rebuild the neighborhood-I'd love to bring in 5,000 Michael Farleys-but I hope we don't have to have the conversation about whether we should rebuild. The two great enemies of Station North are divestment and investment," Duff adds, nicely summing up the problem.
There would be no Station North if it were not for the Maryland Institute College of Art, especially under the guidance of Fred Lazarus, who has taken a great interest in the community and serves on several different boards of directors. Programs like the MFA in community arts, which "prepares artists to use their art-making as a means of civic, youth, and community development, or to teach at the post-secondary level," and the curatorial practice program have explicitly trained MICA graduates to participate in the arts infrastructure in the city. And the faculty, staff, and administration have long recognized the relationship between the university and Station North.
Those artists happened to be right beside a neighborhood with ample warehouse space and a declining industrial base. Charlie Lankford first moved into the Copy Cat building with his typesetting company. He eventually bought the building in 1983, and as the industrial tenants left, he "ran an experiment," as he put it at the artists and neighborhood change conference. "We took 6,000 square feet and turned it into studios," Lankford says. "It was only supposed to be workspaces, but they realized they were spending 15 to 18 hours a day there, so they decided to move there."
Eventually Lankford's attempts to change the zoning so that people could legally live there were realized when he received a Planned Unit Development (or PUD) for the building. When the Greenmount West neighborhood became part of the Arts and Entertainment district in 2002, it made it easier for others to get PUDs and enabled artists like Stewart Watson to team up with like-minded people and buy a former brewery and factory and, with tons of "sweat equity," to turn it into Area 405, a residence/workspace for artists.
But the neighborhood has changed dramatically in the last couple years. Now there is the City Arts Building (which is not allowed to raise rent for artists for 50 years) and a row of rehabbed homes between the Copy Cat and the Annex. (Jubilee is building a second City Arts on Greenmount.) The Baltimore Design School, founded by MICA's Fred Lazarus and State Senator Catherine Pugh, will open in the fall. Allison Shecter, wife of the developer Mike Shecter, just received a three-year renewal of the charter for the Montessori school in Greenmount West, an area without a local school for a generation of graduates (since it is a charter and chosen by lottery, many complaints remain about local access).
Though there had been speculation-and fear-that Lankford might sell the Copy Cat, he recently announced he would not do that. At the conference, he said, "I don't want to sell it off to a developer and let it become something else. So I'm trying to work with the city and an accountant so I can set up a trust where I have an advisory board that oversees running the business in my absence. I want my legacy to be that this building stays as long as it is necessary or relevant to the arts community," he said. "I think it's on a rebound that will last another 20 years. I think this community has got a great future, if we don't let the gentrification issues take it over." He pauses and adds, "But this community is active enough that I don't think that will happen."
Charles North, the more commercial neighborhood that extends from Penn Station in the south up to 22nd Street, and from Howard Street in the west to St. Paul Street in the east, is a much different story. At last year's Scapescape music festival in Station North, MC Eze Jackson was on the stage at Windup Space with his band Soul Cannon. "Can you believe this is happening on North Avenue?" he asked incredulously-echoing what people had been saying for the last few years.
On Charles Street, there had long been some activity around Club Charles, Club Choices, and the Charles Theater, but there were few businesses on North Avenue when Sherwin Mark bought the former Lombard Office Furniture and converted it into the Load of Fun in 2005. That same year,* Joe Edwardsen opened Joe Squared, a bar and pizza place across the street, next door to the Hour Haus practice space. "The first years of Station North were all about me saying 'Yes, there really is a pizza place on North Avenue," says Ben Stone.
Then Carolyn Frenkil and Mike Shecter began to develop the former North Avenue Market-which Frenkil's family had owned since mid-century-and Russell de Ocampo, a musician and former employee of Joe Squared, opened the Windup Space-a bar, performance space, and art gallery-on the corner of Charles and North.
In 2008 a group of recent graduates from a theater program in Boulder, Colo., wanted to move and start a theater company. They could have gone anywhere but chose Baltimore and opened a theater in the Load of Fun called Single Carrot Theatre. They quickly became pillars of the Station North arts community. Which is exactly the kind of thing people are betting on when they talk about "vibrancy," because what happened next was that Doreen Bolger, the ambitious director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, decided to venture down to what was then unknown territory for people like her and see a play.
"Me being an old-fashioned baby-boomer lady, I felt awkward going down there by myself, but I did," Bolger says. The show was sold out but Bolger wanted to wait and see if someone might not show. Eventually, one of the Carrots told her just to come on in. "For me, that's a metaphor of how Station North could be: That artists would take the risks for the person who shows up. And the person who shows up would make a commitment to those artists," Bolger says. "My commitment began when those artists took my hand and said, 'We'll set up a chair for you.' It was a life-changing experience that gave me permission to be there and that gave me permission to be in Station North. It changed the way I relate to artists and the kinds of artists I am exposed to." Bolger, who is now on the Board of SNAE, is one of the art scene's and Station North's greatest champions.
Last fall, after a complaint for code violations brought out inspectors, Mark closed the Load of Fun. When Everyman moved to the west side, Single Carrot moved into their space.
On a recent Tuesday night, usually a slow night for bars, I stopped into the Chesapeake restaurant at Charles and Lanvale which had just held a "soft opening" after decades of vacancy, and the long, marble L-shaped bar was packed. Up the road at the Windup Space, it was Brews and Board Games, and there were dozens of people crowded around the tables, or squatting and laying down on the stage, playing games and drinking beer. Down the block, not only was Liam Flynn's bar packed, there were two dozen old-timey musicians playing "Soldier's Joy" in the center of the room. (This is as good a point as any to disclose that Liam's, Windup Space, Metro Gallery, the Strand Theater, and the Station North Stage at Artscape have all hosted music with which I have been somehow associated.) Around the corner, up at the new Crown, a group of musicians was improvising to a projected nature documentary. Ben Stone was sitting at the bar with a Boh. I sat down and we talked about changes coming to the district in its second decade. He's already told me that one of his big concerns was to make the district more vibrant in the daytime.
"Someone will come here at 3 o'clock on a Wednesday because they read about Station North somewhere and they'll wonder where everything is," he said as he showed me around the under-construction Chicken Box back in January. "This has happened."
The various developments already afoot in the neighborhood will probably mean that, by 2015, the area is likely to be a daytime hotspot as well. "We only have five years to make it happen," Charlie Duff says. "That's why I'm trying to get as much property as possible [for Jubilee] and put it in service of the artistic community, because after that, it will be too expensive."
The biggest and most troublesome development coming to the area is the Amtrak development around Penn Station, which hopes to create a commuter community with easy access to D.C. It's still too early to see how this $500 million development, planned by the Beatty Development LLC, one of the developers behind Harbor East and Harbor Point, will impact the arts district, but there is some wariness surrounding such an influx of money.
But Steve Ziger, of Ziger/Snead architecture studio, which is working on the Baltimore Design School, the Parkway Theater, and 10 E. North, is optimistic. "We all share the same vision," he says. "There is great potential at the southern gateway [of Station North]. We all think the neighborhood can sustain a wide range of housing types."
The Station North Arts and Entertainment District is more interested in moving north and filling in what is often called the "donut hole" in the center of the city. Pending state approval, the district hopes to extend to the area around 25th Street in October, taking in the old Goucher neighborhood. That would put the border of the district within a couple blocks of the future home of the Single Carrot Theater-which it will share with an outpost of the Woodberry Kitchen empire-in the Seawall development at 26th and Howard in Remington.
"There is also a border to a particular district and something outside of that border," Ben Stone says. "Part of the plan is to know that other people are working on similar goals on the border of our district." Stone acknowledges that such an expansion is important because some of what made the early success of Station North-open space where artists like Single Carrot can come and create a community-is less available in the district's current boundaries as development quickens.
Even more significantly, Johns Hopkins University is seeking to greatly expand into the area, which is the center point between its Peabody and Homewood campuses. The Homewood Community Partners Initiative (HCPI) plans to add up to 3,000 units of housing over the next 10 years-extending down past North Avenue to Lanvale Street, just north of Penn Station. In addition to housing, Hopkins is, for the first time, partnering with MICA for film and media programs that will be housed, along with the Maryland Film Festival, in the Parkway Theatre at 3 and 5 W. North Ave., right beside the Chicken Box (See City Folk page 12) and at 10 E. North Ave. The 10 E. North Ave. development will bring the arts community on North Avenue to the east of Charles in a $20 million collaboration between Jubilee, MICA, Hopkins, and Carolyn Frenkil and Mike Shecter. It will also bring two new restaurants, including a barbecue joint, from Joe Squared by fall 2015.
"A genuine barbecue place in the city center could go over exceptionally well," Joe "Squared" Edwardsen says. "I mean, you have to travel to get some decent barbecue [now]."
Amy Bonitz, who is working with Jubilee on the project, told City Paper that "we will be able to join Hopkins and MICA, who will be bringing both film and media programs into the building. The bigger vision is for Hopkins to play a central role in revitalizing the area."
MICA also just opened the Graduate Studio Center at 131 W. North Ave., beside Joe Squared, an $18-plus million development in the old Jos. A. Bank manufacturing plant to significantly increase its footprint in the area.
The Robert W. Deutsch Foundation has undertaken a number of small "spruce-up projects"-including the rehab of the Station North Chicken Box and the conversion of a former police koban into an art space- because, as the foundation's president, Jane Brown, says "in a community that has been this distressed, people need to see change fast."
For the long term, the foundation has helped fund the Baltimore Arts Realty Corporation (BARCO), which is in negotiations to possibly take over the Load of Fun property within the next couple weeks. "We want to create a system that will allow it to be sustainable," Anthony Hawkins, the President of BARCO, says. "The top floor would be for artist-related offices. The second level we think is going to be for all artists, similar to the people who were there before. And the first store will have to be retail, like a cafe, some performance space and a gallery. And that will have to be retail rate so they can support those people who are on the second floor." In fact, Hawkins says, they have found that the artists can only "afford maybe 20 percent of regular retail rates. That's all they can sustain." (Sherwin Mark, the current owner of the property, says he is not able to comment at this time).
BARCO's plan hits at one of the contradictions of the idea that the artists might save us all. How can people who are only able to pay 20 percent of the retail rate save a city?
"Expectations have been created," says Fred Lazarus. "There's enough activity that people feel anything can happen. But the level of resources is still limited." So far, the more bars, restaurants, cafes, and venues, the better, but at some point the businesses will be competing with one another. The first-floor retail at Load of Fun, which Hawkins envisions as something like a coffee shop, would, for instance, be competing directly with Red Emma's, which is moving its radical bookstore, community space, and coffee shop/restaurant into the North Avenue Market, next to Liam Flynn's Ale House, right as Flynn opens a kitchen.
But the bigger worry would be, as Lazarus puts it, "of speculators coming in who are not necessarily interested in the goals of the community." Mike Shecter and Carolyn Frenkil, who are rehabbing the North Avenue Market, have thought a lot about this issue. They could push to make fast money. But like others in the area, they seem genuinely interested in the goals of the community.
"I am speaking for myself and my partner," Frenkil says over the phone. "And I think a lot of people feel this way, but you will never see a national tenant in the North Avenue Market. You can go anywhere in town and go to one of their places. You don't need to come to Station North. You come to Station North for what you can't find anywhere else. It takes a lot of fortitude to ensure that it remains the kind of place that is unique in Baltimore."
This fortitude is nowhere quite as evident as in their eagerness to work with Red Emma's, which also runs the 2640 performance space and the Baltimore Free School. And the fact that Red Emma's seems to trust Shecter and Frenkil is even more remarkable.
When asked about the danger of gentrification in the area, collective member Kate Khatib says, "We are extremely sensitive to the situation. We feel ultimately that our presence in the neighborhood can potentially be a force for positive change rather than a source for negative change. What we really want to do is bring that critical eye into Station North and help with the process of revitalization but to try as hard as we are able not to create gentrification."
Khatib isn't willing to try and predict the future but instead asks, "How can we make sure the people who have stuck it out and the people who have historically been in the neighborhood aren't displaced?" The collective, according to Khatib, hopes to get the development interests on board to create community forums for the people who have been in the neighborhood "not just as a place to talk but as a place to really realize some of the things they'd like to see in the neighborhood." Khatib says that she would ultimately like to see community members become part of the Red Emma's collective and receive a living wage and benefits for working at the store.
And to watch Khatib and Shecter walk through the market, both grinning, talking about the possible future of the community, it is easy to see that there really is something unique going on in Station North: Whether it can save the city or not, it's hard to think of another project that could bring together artists, leftist radicals, and real-estate folks to work toward some common vision.
*An earlier version of this story inaccurately stated that Joe Squared opened the year after Load of Fun. City Paper regrets the error.