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April 7, 2010

Declaring the west side an arts district is not the solution. Here's why.

creative alliance at the patterson, pictured, in 2003A proposal endorsed by Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake would make the city's west side into an arts district, which the administration hopes will help turn around the ailing neighborhood.

This is not the solution. Why? Baltimore already has two arts districts -- Highlandtown/Patterson Park and Station North. It doesn't need a third.

The city declared Highlandtown/Patterson Park an arts district in 2003. That same year, the Creative Alliance at the Patterson (pictured), a mixed use arts/performance space, opened. Offering art exhibits and cutting edge performances, the Creative Alliance was supposed to be the cultural anchor for an arts renaissance in Highlandtown.

Nearly seven years later, Highlandtown/Patterson Park hasn't seen a sliver of the artistic explosion and revitalization that was supposed to happen. Aside from the Creative Alliance and the Southeast Anchor Library, Highlandtown/Patterson Park doesn't have much more in the way of arts than it did in 2003.

Where are all the galleries and performance spaces that were supposed to open? Where are the low budget theaters? ...

Though the city designated Station North an arts district in 2001, it didn't take off until the past few years, when there was a push from the city and neighborhood organizations to cultivate new businesses.

Since then, Station North has come to life. There are new restaurant/clubs such as Joe Squared, the Metro Gallery and the Windup Space, theaters such as the Strand and Single Carrot, as well as the Hexagon, a DIY live music venue. Change came from the ground up, with artists and bartenders taking chances and opening their own businesses.

Meanwhile, the Creative Alliance has kept chugging along out in Highlandtown/Patterson Park. Take one of the Creative Alliance's organizers out for drinks and ask them how they really feel about the city's commitment to cultivating the neighborhood's arts scene and see what they say. You'll probably get an earful.

At this point, Baltimore is one for two in terms of arts districts. Can this city sustain a third? And is the west side the right place for it?

the hippodrome theatre, pictured in 2004The Hippodrome Theater at the France-Merrick Peforming Arts Center (pictured, bottom) was the Creative Alliance of the west side -- an anchor for the rest of the neighborhood. But the city took a different approach with the west side, catering more to developers than artists.

At first, it looked like it would work. New businesses such as Maggie Moore's Irish Pub & Restaurant, World of Wings and Bedrock Billiards sprung up, alongside fancy new apartments. The Bromo Seltzer tower was restored and converted into studio space for local artists.

These days, the west side is a ghost town. Bedrock and Maggie Moore's, which begot Lucy's, are both now closed. So is World of Wings Cafe. Several of the buildings which were supposed to be converted into loft apartments sit vacant. It's proof that the old saying 'If you build it, they will come,' doesn't always ring true.

Now, the administration wants to make the west side an arts district. Even with a significant push from the top down, it's an unlikely solution. Baltimore isn't big enough to sustain three arts districts. The west side could end up siphoning arts and culture from Station North.

If anything, this seems like a stop gap measure -- a way to temporarily get the west side back on its feet while the long-awaited Super Block comes to fruition. If it ever does, the west side will be more of a retail center than an arts district.

Instead of designating the west side an arts district, the city should focus on building up the two arts districts it already has. That's a plan artists and local business owners can get behind.

(Baltimore Sun photos by Jed Kirschbaum and Algerina Perna)

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Posted by Sam Sessa at 10:30 AM | | Comments (42)


The City should declare the area an Awesome Zone. The awesomeness would flow in like lemmings to the sea.

Where do you live, man?

The Awesome Zone!


I agree, if anything would help the west side I think it would be building the new arena over there.

Thank you for the most sensible article I've read on this topic in quite some time. Baltimore has a habit of giving neighborhoods "labels" as this district or that district, and nothing comes to fruition.

What really made me laugh about the arts district was the inclusion of "other neighborhoods west of mlk". Consider for a moment how big of an "arts district" that would be, and how ridiculous the proposal sounds.

Time to clean out the mayor's office and the planning department, and stop throwing good money after bad in Baltimore. At least Jay Brodie woke up and realized it was time to yank the Main Street funding from some of the failing programs.

Agreed. Isn't the point of creating an arts district to concentrate the arts in a particular area? Why do we need 3 of these?

Station North is finally taking off, why funnel any of that magic away from there...

How about XTremeville?

Again, they're just screwing things up by not making it easy to get to.. The Lexington Market metro entrance closes at 8 pm.. aka the beginning or middle of show time at the Hippodrome. Dinner and a show keeps you out until at least 11.
The city/state support ease of transport for sports games.. why not the arts? If everyone who wanted to go to a show went, there would be NO place to park.

What the westside needs is JOBS. how about some light manufacturing?

The best reason for a west side arts district is it could provide lots of places for artists to live and work in older formerly commercial buildings. This could foster vibrant active uses cheaper and quicker than corporately contrived mega projects.

What about the Non-Canton Arts and Entertainment District of Westside Baltimore by the Harbor?

My understanding of Arts Districs as an official designation has always been that they merely provide tax breaks and other economic incentives for artists and arts-related businesses to establish themselves in those areas. Meaning, it encourages people who might otherwise not start a business (like the bartenders who've set up shop in Station North, who you seem to credit as the independent drivers of the area's success, without recognizing the role the district played in giving them an opportunity) to consider it a viable option.

You say the city needs to focus its attention on the existing arts district in Highlandtown, but at least the way I understand it, they exerted as much influence as they're expected simply by designating the district in the first place. Arts Districts aren't about funneling state or city resources to an area to spur development; they're about creating an economic environment where individuals are better able to develop the area on their own.

Much of what you say may still hold true. I think it's more than fair to say that an arts district on the West Side would hurt Station North. But without addressing what it is, specifically, that an Arts District does-- meaning how does it encourage development-- I can't say you've really given the topic adequate treatment.


the main thrust of an "arts district" is to provide a few tax credits to artists and/or arts-groups. why don't we designate the whole city an "arts district". then artists can set up shop wherever they see fit.

The best reason for a west side arts district is it could provide lots of places for artists to live and work in older formerly commercial buildings. This could foster vibrant active uses cheaper and quicker than corporate mega projects where the economics are difficult to pull off. I do not think it will steal from the other arts districts and may make Baltimore a better arts town overall.

Ironic that the least creative thing the city can do these days to bring a neighborhood up by its straps is make it an arts district.

I feel sorry for Harbor East's Victim, Downtown's West Side. The city also killed it's usefulness by chasing away the retailers who cater to lower income folks. Thus were left with The Vacant Zone. More people live in Jarrettsville than the Downtown's West Side.

Agreed. I would love to see more come out of the Highlandtown arts movement. There is so much potential, especially at the Western edge of Highlandtown, but so far nothing has really taken hold.

I will admit that I am biased though, as I essentially live across from the Patterson. :-)

I see more artsy stuff going on in main street Pigtown than where they plan on setting up another arts district.

Jobs are what they need more than another designation.

As an early adopter in Station North, the Chop is personally tired of trying to stay one step ahead of the city and development.

Station North at least made sense due to it's proximity to MICA and the Copycat/ Cork Factory buildings. There's also still a LONG way to go.

There was never that kind of critical mass in Highlandtown, and there isn't on the Westside. H and H does not an arts district make.

I'm surprised your article doesn't make any mention of Harry Weinberg, who began the culture of vacancy on the Westside, and who has left Baltimore two separate legacies.

I live on the West Side in Seton Hill. We already have tons of artists living in our neighborhood, we even have an old warehouse filled with artists whom have shows etc. Making it easier for them to live where they are makes good sense. Art and commercial business go hand in hand-- Having artists upstairs and businesses downstairs creates an exciting and energetic environment, which will pull people in.

The key problem here is upscale.

Everything done almost except for creative alliance is catering to high profit, over priced upscale establishments.

Sorry....most people the people you need to make business a success can not pay high prices. When you cater to only the high end well you take your chances.

Like my tour of the bromo seltzer tower.
I found that the occupants....poor artists...were dealing mainly in inc.

Each had .inc in their name and a credit card machine and nothing to purchase for less than a pile of money.

priced me out and I havent been back.

I am an independent artist that gives a lot of my time to the city- donation no profit dont sell anything. I simply asked for a spot at the base of the tower to have reserved to park an artcar in. Couldnt be done! Something as simple as put up a sign artcar only. I would have gladly managed it myself and allocated the slot to anyone willing to brighten up the city for free.

When a city can not reach out and do simple things that cost them nothing what can they actually do.

I am still waiting for the city to compensate local cartists for gas and wear and tear for appearing at artscape where we have delighted thousands for nothing!

Believe me they havent got a clue. I havent even met the new visual arts director for artscape yet. Out of the loop. I am however a dedicated visionary outsider but do we need to be that outside while so much effort goes to helping established artists make money as in the tower......

Oh well off to scrounge up more parts for my self funded art.

Conrad Bladey
Debtor Nation

Sam and Chop. I have to politely disagree.
If there is ANY area in the city that is in need of an arts designation, it's the West Side. There is no reason that that area couldn't look like the streets around the Verizon Center in DC. It's all about planning. get a major chain, like Dave and Busters to inhabit the old Maggie Moores or Bedrock and give some tax breaks to smaller businesses that want to set up shop around the 1st mariner. Everyman theater is already re-locating there. H&H is NOT the only gallery in that area. You have Gallery 4, Whole etc.. Wham City, which is now an international phenom, lives on Howard.
the city needs to engage both artists and business people alike. A resurrection in that area is possible. Take the Mayfair theater. What a great place to re-develop.
I personally do not think the city knows how to capitalize on it's success. Our music scene is covered by the Guardian, our designers are going u to NY for fashion week etc...(not to mention the Wire, which no matter how you cut it, was BOON to this city.)
Though we're NOT NY (not even close I know) we're in the same place that city was I'd say in about 1979.
You wouldn't want to set foot in NY back then. But then Ed Koch and the city started the I <3 NY campaign and turned things around.
The prob with the Eastside project was that it's too spread out. There's not a real hipster contingent over there. It's mostly professionals that own houses and Latinos.
The city's tourism people need to be fired and a younger, more dynamic crew needs to be hired.
The West Side is perfect IMO, for a rebirth.

The problem with these contrived "Arts" districts is that the housing out-prices the artists. The simple fact is that developers are out to make money and the profit margin on high end residential is far higher than that of "affordable housing". How many wealthy artists do you know? Arts districts happen when actual artists discover neighborhoods with affordable housing and large spaces (generally post industrial area). THEN the businesses and restaurants follow. One can build a high end neighborhood, but arts districts usually develop grass roots.

The Highlandtown Arts District demarcation was a way bigger flop than a west side one would ever be. I say a reallocation is more appropriate. Sorry Creative Alliance but an East Side, out on the skirts of the city, Arts District makes no sense. I am totally for the West Side being named an Arts District. Take away the Highlandtown district if having 3 is the problem.

Youcan't have too many arts and how do you define the "two" arts districts- is there not a light rail stop in THE arts district? But as BD above stated we have a kajillion artists including myself here, actors, makers of the Baltimore club sound-just please do anything with the West side- and up my property value.

"Arts districts happen when actual artists discover neighborhoods with affordable housing and large spaces "

This is what happened in SoWeBo, a community that is still home to many talented local artists...unfortunately few think of that, except for during the SoWeBo Arts Festival

To all those saying that true arts districts emerge when through grassroots efforts: you're right. The idea of an arts district designation is to make that grassroots development easier by providing tax credits and economic incentives to the largely poor artists that are needed to drive the development. By definition, that's a bit contrived. That much is true. But if I'm won of those artists, I'll take that contrivance in order to start my gallery for substantially less than it would cost me in another part of the city.

To the idea that these districts price out the true artists by catering to the high end: that's simply untrue. In fact, I think it's fair to say that that opinion is little more than uneducated class warfare. These are largely blighted areas that are in need of commerce of any kind. The district designation makes renting space or taking residence in the area affordable. It's possible that as the area develops, retailers and others will flood the scene and price the early-adopters out of the neighborhood. That much is more than reasonable. But it hasn't happened in any of the arts districts in the state yet, at least to me knowledge.

Who knew providing tax breaks for struggling artists could garner such scorn.

how about a ghetto themed amusement park?

how about a ghetto themed amusement park?

What rides would they have?

I sure hope that it means tax credits and breaks, although with the cost of Baltimore City taxes, I can't imagine how affordable it is for an artist to set up shop.

It makes me think of "The Office" episode where Michael Scott is told he should declare bankruptcy and he walks out in front of all the employees and loudly says "I DECLARE BANKRUPTCY!"

That to me is how effective it is of the lousy city government to declare anything. Arts districts are led by artists, usually involve low cost housing and studio space, and eventually leads to gentrification chasing out artists who get priced out of the very neighborhoods they made liveable.

The city has been trying to peddle this west side thing for years, it's a trainwreck. City government is a fiasco led by people who can't get real jobs in the business world, trying to play business with taxpayers money.

If the Westside was a place that would make for successful real estate and business venture, guess what, BUSINESS people would be in there buying up the real estate and opening businesses, ie Canton, Hampden, Hunt VALLEY even...

The West side is a hell hole and will remain as such during my lifetime due to the extreme poverty that surrounds it, making it an unappealing place to go to eat, shop, buy art... etc.

Sam, do you know when Federal Hill received its Meathead District designation? Was that '02?

In other news, I am hosting a bar crawl to support all the arts districts in Baltimore. There will be art, beer, and stabbings. Come join us.

It will take some doing, but this could work. Rents and property values will have to be at the right level to make it affordable. The City will need to think out of the box to cut red tape so folks like Conrad can participate, adding to choice and attractiveness. I don't see it competing with Station North, but complementing it, especially if the Eutaw Place and North Avenue corridors are seriously looked at as a means of linking West Arts and Station North up with each other. That would also take back a big piece of the city. It's time for big dreams, Baltimore....

I'm not sure about rides, but it could be fun, when you enter you have to chose to join the bloods or crips and get toy guns to fire at each other.

At least one ride could be police chase themed. Maybe a Jail theme haunted house


Yeah, you're right in everything you say... except that a Dave and Busters wouldn't work there.

World of Wings failed when the baseball money dried up. That place was a little piece of the suburbs downtown.

Lucy's failed too. Lucy's was a damn fine bar, IMO.

I just believe the arts designation won't much help anyone who's already there.

I wonder if the Hippodrome can really be a catalyst for an arts district. Most of what is performed at the Hippodrome is very safe from an artistic standpoint, and I would imagine most of the people who see plays there are not exactly an adventurous lot. I'm not sure if I see those kinds of people wandering around bars and galleries in West Baltimore after seeing The Lion King. I would guess they want to get in their cars and go home.

Another factor is the demand side of the equation, not just the supply side - yes the city/state/fed arts commisars can help build the infrastructure and enable artists to create - but it is not very sustainable if the artists can not find a market for their art. The economy has really pinched a lot of people and maybe the rich people that can still affort to support the arts are leary about going to neighborhoods unless there is some buzz about them which is generated by worker drones and artist bees, flitting around looking for affordable art and music - Can't blame everything on the government or the developers - The economy is to blame also - it takes a critical mass of people to support artists and many have cut back their spending on art.

Instead of an arts district, the city could make the west side an entrepreneurship district. If you start a business, you also get subsidy on housing in the neighborhood. Employ five people, and you get an even greater discount. The city could also give residential tax breaks to people living in condos there, making it more attractive than other parts of the city.

I agree with jonniebmore, make the whole city an "arts district" - have the tax credits apply anywhere there are artists. That way the artistic community can develop wherever appropriate space can be found.

Nice post, Sam. Very True.

If, as you say, Station North is just now "taking off" and "coming to life" after nearly 10 years of existence, what indication is there that Highlandtown won't do the same as it approaches 10 years old. After all, it was a few years behind Station North in its creation. It seems irrational to count one as failed if you haven't given it the same chance to succeed as the other.

Three years ago, a legitimate argument could be made that not much progress had been achieved in Station North. It's proximity to MICA-proper didn't benefit it nearly as much as when MICA jumped I-83. THAT was one of a few major factors that jumpstarted Station North.

I would prefer we give Highlandtown the same chance, and West Side, too. Good grief...the designation hasn't even occurred yet and some are pronouncing West Side dead. Prior to 2000, Station North was a dead zone as well.

The City should concentrate on keeping the citizens safe and providing our children with an excellent education. Then, businesses of all types will find Baltimore attractive and neighborhoods will flourish.

Great Topic Sam.

I am not sure that the Highlantown Arts District has not been promoted well, or if people are even aware that there are incentives for artists to live and work in the area. It is one thing to create and Arts District, the other is to promote and support it.

"Highlandtown/Patterson Park hasn't seen a sliver of the artistic explosion and revitalization that was supposed to happen"

I think you should look before you make statements like this. In 2003 there was no Creative Alliance at the Patterson, no library, no sculpture in Patterson Park, no Lantern Parade, no Highlandtown Wine Festival and the list goes on. The tax credits that come with an Arts District designation have very little teeth. In fact, until members of Station North and ha! ( got together with state officials last year the state didn't have forms or a process for most of the credits. The real value of the designation is lending perception and purpose. And for that we in Highlandtown are grateful.

Revitalization takes a lot of work and a lot of time. For every over night explosion like Canton there are myriad neighborhoods who labor for years. We're turning the corner here in Highlandtown ( as evidence by the younger faces, strollers and the hundreds of people who attend events like the Lantern Parade and the Highalndtown Wine Festival.

The market is slow to catch on but here we are with a half dozen development projects on Eastern Avenue and several large project slated in the interior of the neighborhood.

Come by the Laughing Pint sometime ( and I'll buy you a beer and tell you all about the amazing things happening in our neighborhood centered around culture and community.

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About Erik Maza
Erik Maza is a features reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He writes for several sections of the Sun paper and contributes weekly columns on music and nightlife. He also writes and edits the Midnight Sun blog. He often covers entertainment, business, and the business of entertainment. Occasionally, he writes about Four Loko, The Block, the liquor board, and those who practice "simulated sex with a potted palm tree." Before The Sun, he was a reporter at the Miami New Times. He's also written for Miami magazine, the Orlando Sentinel, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Gainesville Sun. Got tips? Gripes? Pitches? He's reachable at Click here to keep up with the dumb music he's listening to.

Midnight Sun covers Baltimore music, live entertainment, and nightlife news. On the blog, you'll find, among other things, concert announcements, breaking news, bars closings and openings, up-to-date coverage of crime in nightlife, new music, round-the-clock coverage of Virgin Mobile FreeFest, handy guides on bars staying open past 2 a.m. on New Year's Eve and those that carry Natty Boh on draft. Recurring features include seven-day nightlife guides, Concert News, guest reviews of bars and concerts, Wednesday Corkboard, and photo galleries, as well as reader-submitted photos. Thanks for reading.

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