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A year after the Bell Foundry was shut down, Baltimore's DIY arts scene remains in flux

When Butch Dawson walks by the former Bell Foundry, the vacant, 13,000-square-foot building the Baltimore rapper once called home, he often stops, just momentarily.

“I look up, and look inside the windows, and get this weird nostalgia,” said the 24-year-old West Baltimore man. “There was no negative energy. It was a true safe space in the center of the arts scene. It couldn’t have been any better than that.”

The former industrial building on North Calvert Street housed dozens of artists of varying backgrounds and practices, and regularly hosted unsanctioned live performances, fostering a free-spirited and supportive community that enlivened the Station North arts district.

But then a fire last December at a similar space in Oakland, Calif., killed 36. Within days, Baltimore fire and housing officials received a tip about the Bell Foundry. They took a look, evicted the tenants and condemned the space for safety violations and deplorable conditions.

A year later, Baltimore’s DIY arts and music scene is still feeling the effects. Artists say they don’t know whether city officials are trying to help them out or shut them down, and they’re concerned that their homes and studios could be closed next. This sense of uncertainty has pushed the scene further underground, they say.

Mayor Catherine Pugh has established a task force to address artists’ concerns about a lack of safe, affordable spaces to live and work in the city. But the group’s progress has been slow — a self-imposed June deadline for releasing a set of recommendations has come and gone — and closing a long-existing gulf between the arts community and the city bureaucracy has proved difficult.

“So many people are like, ‘I’m tired of Baltimore because all this [expletive] is happening,’ ” local musician Sara Autrey said. “It’s like the magic that brought you here is gone.”

Pugh signed an executive order in April stating artists could remain in spaces despite code violations so long as the buildings “do not represent an imminent threat to life or safety.” The goal was to bring artists temporary peace of mind, but artists say the number of DIY shows has still dropped off in the past year.

For some, the vibrant, freewheeling arts scene that once made Baltimore attractive is no longer recognizable.

Autrey, who sings and plays bass in the indie rock group Wing Dam, says she came to Baltimore in 2010 because she was drawn to the flourishing arts scene and its abundance of DIY performances in spaces such as the Copycat Building, the Annex, Floristree and many others.

These buildings still exist, but artists say they’re much less active in the DIY scene than years past.

Shows are “more word-of-mouth now,” Autrey said. (For example, Showspace, a blog that organizes Baltimore shows both DIY and above-ground, stopped publicizing addresses shortly after officials shut the Bell Foundry down.)

Josh Dibb, a Baltimore musician known for his work in the popular group Animal Collective, said the impact has been hard to ignore.

“The activity within the scene, this last year, has been significantly less than it normally would be,” Dibb said.

While artists lament a dampening of the scene’s spirit, members of the mayor’s task force say they have spent the past year addressing a more tangible concern: physical safety. Avoiding another disaster like the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland is top priority, they say, followed by addressing the knottier issues of affordability, compliance and zoning.

The 22-member task force, co-chaired by attorney Jon Laria and banker Franklin McNeil, held public meetings from January to May. The panel encouraged frank input from artists, city officials and residents. Attendance peaked in February, when approximately 60 members of the public attended a forum at the War Memorial Building. But the number dwindled to no more than two dozen attendees by May.

Nearly six months after the last public meeting, the arts community still awaits the panel’s recommendations.

Laria said “nothing dramatic” has held up the recommendations. For the past six months, he said, the task force has been in the process of “editing and formatting” the report, he said, while working with the mayor’s office to select a date to release the results publicly.

Laria, a partner in the Baltimore office of Ballard Spahr, said the findings will “absolutely” be released before the end of the year. He said the mayor’s executive order — a high priority of the task force — eased the urgency of the recommendations.

“It took some of that anxiety away, and to some extent, just blunted the momentum a little bit, to be frank,” Laria said. “The thing to do now is to finish the job by rounding out the recommendations to include all of the forward-looking things that we think the city can do to make Baltimore as hospitable and inviting for artists and the arts community as possible.”

Pugh said she never gave the task force a deadline. The priority, she said, is identifying long-term solutions based on the feedback and suggestions artists provided the task force. She said the recommendations will be released within weeks.

“The more people shared, the more we realized this was a bigger issue than we initially thought it would be,” Pugh said. “This is not about dates and numbers. This is about putting together a strategy that will work on behalf of that community.”

Laria and McNeil said the task force will recommend the city hire an ombudsman who will act as a liaison between the arts community and City Hall on issues such as zoning laws and related minutiae. It will also recommend finding creative interpretations of housing and fire codes to better accommodate living and work spaces shared by multiple tenants.

Laria and McNeil said they were encouraged by the progress in bringing together two distinctly different sides: the arts community and city bureaucracies such as the fire and housing departments. But one of the panel’s most prominent members was unsatisfied.

Musician Dan Deacon, a pillar of Baltimore’s DIY community, said his schedule as a touring artist eventually made regular attendance impossible. He said he stopped receiving emails about meetings.

“I was pretty disenfranchised by the process, and just wanted it to go away,” Deacon told The Baltimore Sun in September. “A lot of people had good intentions, but I don’t know.” (Through a publicist, Deacon declined requests to further discuss the task force.)

Aaron Maybin, a painter and poet, attended the first several task force meetings, but was put off by the panel’s construction — in particular its lack of Bell Foundry tenants. (McNeil said the mayor’s office chose the members of the task force.)

“What you didn’t have was the interest of the community that they’re saying all of this grandstanding is supposed to be for,” Maybin said. “Look at what they were saying they were trying to do, and the people that they included at the table, and tell me how that was supposed to get done.”

Maybin and Deacon’s feelings speak to the greatest gulf between the DIY arts community and the city: The artists often operate outside the margins, while the bureaucrats’ role is to create parameters and enforce them.

“You can’t expect any trust to be there,” Maybin said. “The city hasn’t done anything to deserve that trust.”

Oakland is finalizing its own recommendations. Kelley Kahn, policy director for arts spaces for Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, said the city plans to update outdated building and zoning codes, create an FAQ to help artists to better understand city laws and establish a loan fund to encourage property owners to renovate their spaces without displacing artists.

In the process, Kahn said, Oakland has had to work at improving the relationships between the city and artists. It remains a work in progress.

“Cities like Oakland and Baltimore probably do have to overcome a lot of mistrust,” Kahn said. “It requires a whole new way of thinking and working, and it takes awhile.”

Kahn said Baltimore’s task force reached out to her to compare notes. She said she was impressed by “how they were thinking about the problem, and the technical know-how of the people on the task force.”

The key, Kahn said, is to make sure the local government has advocates for the creative class on staff — the type of officials more interested in finding solutions than simply enforcing rules that weren’t created to address communal living and work spaces.

“There’s a lot of people who just want it to be super black-and-white, and then there’s not a lot of wiggle room for problem-solving and creativity,” Kahn said.

Dibb runs a recording studio out of the Compound, the sprawling East Baltimore Midway warehouse space that houses artists, a library, a woodshop, rehearsal space and more. He said he went into the task force meetings “with a lot of skepticism.” But he left “happily surprised” by the panel’s willingness to understand the arts scene, and why DIY spaces mean so much to it.

“I found that to be refreshing,” he said. “It wasn’t really what I was expecting.”

Some Baltimore artists only attended a couple meetings, and many never went at all.

Elon Battle, a local R&B singer who performs as :3LON, said many local artists view the city government more as an ally to real-estate developers than to artists.

Battle, a former Bell Foundry tenant, said officials use the artists’ coolness and credibility to market the city, but don’t provide affordable housing so artists can remain here. (He said the $1 million asking price of the Bell Foundry building and its lot — placed for sale in April by owners Calvert Lofts LLC and JBL Calvert LLC — is a stark reminder.)

“Most of the artists I know don’t trust the government,” Battle said. “I feel like this was all done for profit, to make more money. They weren’t really making that much money off that space from us just living there — not as much as they probably could if they made it into a commercial space.”

For Battle and other tenants of the Bell Foundry, the belief that the city values profit over livelihood feels particularly defeating. The Bell Foundry, they say, was the rare inclusive space for the marginalized.

“It’s just sad that the one time we had a space full of majority [people of color], majority queer folk, [the city was] just not having it,” Battle said. “They made sure they nipped it in the bud.”

That’s the crossroads at which local government and the arts community find themselves today: A sense of cynicism from artists remains, and there’s no guarantee the work of the task force — no matter how well-intentioned — will thaw it. And yet, there’s still hope from artists that the city will, in their minds, do the right thing, though no one knows what that will look like in a rapidly developing city.

“All you have to do is facilitate a place, and everything else is going to fall into place,” Battle said. “That is literally my dream, especially after getting kicked out of the Bell Foundry. That’s all we really wanted.”

The task force co-chairs say there’s enough room and potential in Baltimore for market-rate development and affordable housing, just as there’s room for sanctioned performance venues and DIY spaces.

“Unfortunately, when you have gentrification, it’s a symbol of success, because people are moving into the city and so forth, and prices are moving up,” McNeil said. “We want to keep some spaces where artists and others can maintain a space like the Bell Foundry on their own. …

“It’s got to co-exist.”

Dibb said members of the task force have worked with residents of the Compound, offering consultation and guidance in code compliance. But like other artists, they’re still waiting to see the recommendations, and if they’ll lead to significant, palpable changes.

“It still is just talk until it actually turns into something real,” Dibb said.

wesley.case@baltsun.com

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