Oriole Park at Camden Yards,
the Inner Harbor, Silo Point—over the past 40 years Baltimore has witnessed a number of municipal government and corporate economic development partnerships create long-lasting impressions on the city’s landscape and cultural life. Not all of them, however, have produced such illustrious thumbprints. Some have, from the very start, faced contentious community opposition. Some, from the moment construction began, were already problematic in the planning stage. And some get started before gaining community support and implode before completion, remaining ambitious failures on an epic scale. And in Baltimore, perhaps no single project is more of an epic fail than the attempt to connect Interstate 95 with I-70, construction on which halted in the 1970s, leaving behind a 1.4-mile stretch of divided highway from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to the West Baltimore MARC train station that permanently cleaved a predominately African-American community in two. To those of us who arrived in Baltimore after its construction, there was never a time before. For all we know, Baltimore has always had that pointless “Highway to Nowhere.”
“We chose the Highway to Nowhere because when I [started working on] my thesis, it was the safest place you could actually be all day long,” says local artist and community organizer Ashley Milburn. “There was absolutely
on the green spaces on the highway. There’s, like, 52 acres of downtown park-like green spaces with no one on it. So the idea of putting a huge national festival on that spot—and Alternate Roots was crazy enough to even think about it—was just outrageous.”
He’s talking about Roots Fest 2011, a national conference and festival that kicks off tonight with panel discussions and presentations and culminates this weekend in two days of free, outdoor music and arts featuring New Orleans poet Sunni Patterson, contemporary soul man Anthony David, go-go godfather Chuck Brown, and hip-hop truth teller Talib Kweli—all taking place on the Highway to Nowhere at Franklin and North Gilmor streets. It’s a crowd-pleasing, family-friendly lineup of artists and activities designed to bring people to West Baltimore to have a good time. But for the festival organizers, it’s an opportunity to spotlight the human and cultural resources of a community that has been undervalued—and undervalued itself—thanks to decades of poor systemic urban planning and policy, and an attempt to find creative cultural strategies to succeed in revitalization where traditional models of private/public partnerships have not.
Roots Fest 2011 is technically a 35th-anniversary celebration for Alternate Roots, an Atlanta-based nonprofit organization that services 14 southern states and Washington, D.C., working with “artists and organizers who are doing work at the intersection of arts and activism,” says Carlton Turner, Alternate Roots executive director, by phone. “We help and support artists through networking and capacity building and skills development as well as legal aid and funding.”
Milburn crossed paths with Alternate Roots in 2007, when the arts organization hosted a weekend community-arts minifestival in Baltimore. Milburn, a West Philadelphia native who moved to Baltimore in 2003, graduated from MICA’s masters program in community arts in 2007, working in West Baltimore through the Bon Secours of Maryland Foundation. In 2007 he became an Open Society Fellow to continue working with community members to change the perception of the Highway to Nowhere. He and West Baltimore community organizer Denise Johnson started Culture Works, a community outreach endeavor under the auspices of the local social change and justice nonprofit Fusion Partnership Inc. And Milburn reached out to Alternate Roots to help Culture Works do what it was trying to do.
“We partnered with them three years ago to help us bring resources into Baltimore, to explore the idea of what, exactly, is cultural organizing and how can we assist the community in doing something with that,” Milburn says. “And then Alternate Roots was [going to be] celebrating its 35th anniversary. We are kinsman in all of what we do and think about community and arts and culture. We bid for them to do their celebrating in West Baltimore, because nothing ever, ever, ever, ever happens there on that magnitude.”
In fact, you could argue that the only time events of this magnitude happen in West Baltimore, it’s destruction packaged as development. In July 1999 the George B. Murphy Homes, and their roughly 800 units, were demolished to make room for a different low-income housing project of 352 units. And then there were the approximately 3,000 residents who were displaced when their properties were bought to make way for the Highway to Nowhere’s construction.
“There has never been a public discussion by the former residents who were displaced about what happened,” Milburn says. “I attended a meeting during my first internship at Bon Secours, and this one woman in her 80s stood up and was talking about rampant crime and all this stuff, and then she got on to the Highway to Nowhere, because she said, ‘It used to be different.’ I turned around and looked at her and she was crying. And I looked at other people’s faces and they had this empathy, there was something here.”
“It changed drastically,” says West Baltimore native and activist Zelda Robinson by phone about the neighborhood before the Highway to Nowhere. “The majority of the people who were in this area were first-time homeowners in all the generations of their family. And when they came along and just took the people’s properties and not even giving them enough to even be able to look at another opportunity to buy a property, the people were fearful—because if they did that to them they’ll do the same thing to us. And that’s a lot of what goes on in the community today. People have become so disenchanted and feel so depressed and oppressed by the treatment that they receive and the lack of equity in the distribution of services. They’re just in a state of suspended animation, so to speak, because they really don’t believe that they have the opportunity to really have someone hear their voice and to be able to make a difference in what
perceive is what they want where they live—not what others want to bring to them.”
And Milburn, Culture Works, and Alternate Roots’ entire approach is to do just that: ask the community what it wants in order to figure out how to move forward. “I’m engaged with them because I believe that their strategy and their approach is very unique and will make a big difference,” Robinson says. “Ordinarily the approach has been about bricks and mortar and developers. But this one is about the people and empowering the people to make the change that they would like to see within their communities.”
“This is definitely a community organizing effort,” Turner says of Roots Fest 2011. “It’s about bringing the community together to look at these issues, using West Baltimore as a focal point through which we can look at the rest of the country. So we’re not isolating West Baltimore saying we need to fix it, but looking at it and saying these types of communities exist in cities all around the country and how can we work together—not just to help fix the problems of West Baltimore, but how can we use the learning here and the conversations here to help move us toward looking at and addressing those problems on a national scale.”
“When I first said, ‘Hey, I’m bringing a festival here,’ [people asked me], ‘
Why you doing it in West Baltimore?'
” Milburn says. “And I’d say, ‘Because you’ve never been there.’ Those folks that look at West Baltimore and say there’s just nothing there—this is the residents saying, ‘There’s something here.’ And when we get through this festival, on [June] 27—it’s a whole new dialogue about everybody. A whole new game coming up, and I’m interested in the 27th. The festival, in our minds, is only a pivotal point where discussion becomes reality. And then, what do you do with it once it’s real? What do you do with it when you’ve found you have value in where you live, which has been devalued? Or you have devalued a place that has value, and you can’t run the same scenarios anymore?”