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Oliver Street emerging as a path of artistic discovery

The next Alloverstreet event will be held 5 p.m. Friday, April 8, at Area 405 Gallery, 405 E. Oliver Street.

The recent evening I spent at Oliver Street and Guilford Avenue exhibited the vibrancy of the arts neighborhood that has established itself there.

I was guided along this path of artistic evolution by attending a new monthly event designed to focus public attention on a place that can be difficult to appreciate, and discover, for those new to the area.

The event is called Alloverstreet, a free community open house, accompanied by a happy hour and artist talk.

Some call this neighborhood Greenmount West; others Station North Arts or the Entertainment District. I like to think specific: the 400 block of E. Oliver St.

Over the past 15 years, this street has transformed itself from a decaying, moribund industrial mini-corridor into a happening place. There are new schools — the Baltimore Design School and the Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School — as well as new housing at the City Arts Apartments.

There is also a community project called the Station North Tool Library, a nifty place to rent or use the full woodshop housed there.

Looking eastward from the Oliver Street sidewalk, one can observe the Gothic Revival entrance gates of historic Green Mount Cemetery, one of the neighborhood presences that help define the boundaries of this emerging enclave.

To the south is the Amtrak corridor, adjacent to Pennsylvania Station. There's also the massive Copy Cat Building, built decades ago as a Crown Cork and Seal factory.

Oliver Street's arts scene didn't emerge overnight. On my visit, I learned how a group of partners including Jim Vose, his wife, Stewart Watson and Steve Freel, found studio space back in 2001.

They discovered 405 E. Oliver, the former C.M. Kemp plant, which had been vacant for nearly eight years. With the help of additional partners, they spent $200,000 to buy the sprawling structure, so filled with debris that it took 150 trips with a 30-yard dumpster to clean it out. No bank would write a mortgage.

A venetian blind factory had been there in the 1970s. In previous lives it had been a brewery, and a plant that produced the small furnaces used to melt the lead in Linotype machines. It worked overtime during World War II.

As they worked on it, the partners found they had a solid industrial building — it even had sprinklers. Oliver Street Studios and the Area 405 gallery, named after the street address, were born.

The place is now a beehive of working artists' studios, a fine gallery and meeting spaces. There are regular art exhibitions. The building also hosts weddings and other social events. At least two plays, "Sweeny Todd" and "Romeo and Juliet" have been performed here. There are dance performances and flamenco events.

"This is the behind-the-scenes of how the arts get done in Baltimore," said Vose as he walked through the complex.

The partnership rents 40 work spaces to artists. Vose insists that the studios must be used by working artists — not those who claim to be artists and treat the space as glorified storage lockers.

Kimi Hanauer, very much one of those working artists and the Station North program coordinator, helped create the monthly Alloverstreet events.

"It happened organically," she said of the event, "out of a desire to link all the galleries here with a specific night."

The events are also a way to spread the word about a place that can be hard to find, tucked away in the urban core, surrounded by busy thoroughfares.

The next Alloverstreet is scheduled for 5 p.m. Friday, April 8, beginning at Area 405 Gallery, 405 E. Oliver St. About 10 galleries in the neighborhood will be open until 10 p.m.

Freel, one of the original partners, is pleased with the attendance at the events and hopes word is spreading.

"The events held here are full," he said, "but it is amazing the people who don't know about us."


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