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