Wall Hunters takes on the slumlords crippling Baltimore neighborhoods

Shawniece Smith bought her rowhouse on Longwood Street, off of Route 40 in West Baltimore, seven years ago. She works, pays her mortgage, and goes to school. Walking into her house can be a little disorienting because of the mirrors mounted on opposing walls that reflect back and forth, forever and ever, infinitely. The house is immaculately clean, with spotless floors and nice furniture. Smith keeps a trash bag suspended from the top of her door, has a cement backyard, and always makes sure to keep the door closed-all to stop the rats which plague her house as a result, she says, of the unkempt vacant property next door.

"See the droppings," she says, pointing at numerous rat pellets scattered around her concrete yard. In reality, the rats are the least of Smith's worries. Because the house next door is not only unkempt, it is visibly crumbling, and it is attached to Smith's house, causing her, she claims, to have to buy new joists because of the termites the vacant has attracted. "I'm worried the floors are going to cave in," she says.

Smith is not alone. As we walk through her neighborhood on a pleasant Sunday afternoon, it is a study in contrasts. An older man throws a football to a kid on the sidewalk across the street just in front of a vacant next to an alley filled with trash. Two women who have lived on the street for decades sit on a porch, chatting and eating, surrounded by crumbling buildings, some without roofs.

Cammie Evans, the head of the Western Neighborhood Association, which she says is not recognized by the city, invites us into her house and shows us a letter she sent to the mayor on Aug. 6. It complains about the lack of attention given to the neighborhood, which she finds "especially disheartening, as I treasure the memories of the positive responses that I received from Clarence Blount, and your father, Pete Rawlings, when they were alive." Evans, who has lived on the block for 50 years, has not received a response from Rawlings-Blake.

Of course, there are 16,000 vacants recognized, and in many cases owned by, the City of Baltimore, plus the thousands of properties not yet "deemed unsafe and unfit for human habitation." According to the 2010 census, the city has 46,000 empty housing units.

"It's the result of 50 years of divestment and loss of population," Cheron Porter, spokesperson for Baltimore Housing, says. But the divestment and population loss follow certain patterns. A U.S. Census Baltimore Housing map shows how many of those vacants are clustered together in areas like Greenmount East or Sandtown, which have a more than 25 percent vacancy rate. That's about the rate on Shawniece Smith's street, where she and her neighbors pay higher insurance rates (if they can get insurance at all) and face greater dangers and unpleasantness because of the vacants. "And it's only two miles from where all the money is," Smith says, pointing at the proposed Red Line stop across Route 40 from the empty lot on the corner, beside her house.

But Smith hasn't found the city or the landlord of the property adjacent to hers very responsive either. "It's gotten worse," she says, pointing to the side of the porch that is crumbling. "And it endangers me and my daughter," she adds. So when she saw a story about Slumlord Watch and Wall Hunters, two groups that work together to shame so-called slumlords into dealing with their vacant properties, she picked up her cellphone and called them.

Now, on the side of the vacant building beside hers, just in front of the bus stop, there is a giant mural, painted by LNY, one of the top street artists in the world, commemorating the moment: "Shawnee's call" depicts the deralict structure and a portrait of Smith, her cellphone pressed against her face. It is painted over an old sign which reads "Roof Troubles: In Most Cases We Repair It." Beside her, a small cartoon figure, which was part of the ad, has been reconfigured with a spraypaint can to represent Nether, the street artist behind Wall Hunters. Off to the side is a giant QR code, provided by Nether, and information, provided by Carol Ott's Slumlord Watch website, about the property, including its owner and the elected representatives in whose districts it resides.

Ott and Nether are an odd couple. He is a young street artist initially more comfortable with skaters, rappers, and dirt-bike riders than with public officials. She is a middle-aged mother and the rare Baltimore City Republican.

"Being a Republican is all about keeping the government out of your personal life, out of your thoughts," Ott, a short, intense woman with blond hair, says of her beliefs. "So what better and what more Republican idea than supporting sort of a rogue effort to bring attention to a government-led problem? Baltimore is not going to be fixed by our government or by recognized organized associations. It's going to be fixed by people who get fed up one day and decide there's a better way to do things, there's a better conversation, there's a better everything."

When Ott, a resident of Pigtown, became one of those people who gets fed up enough to make a difference, it was personal as well as political.

"My parents were the blue-collar to white-collar success story, so neighborhoods like this have a special place in my heart," she says, sitting in an empty lot beside 2031 Christian Street with her back against a vacant. Nether and another street artist named Tefcon are on a ladder, preparing the wall for Tefcon's monumental wheatpaste picture, and a documentary crew is setting up gear. Neighbors sit around talking on nearby stoops. A man rides by on a bicycle and stops to watch what's going on. "Look at this," he says gesturing towards the vacants. "There are only six families left here."

"Clearly, looking around, it's not working," says Ott. "So we have to come up with bigger and better and more intuitive and more proactive planning and better conversations, including different groups of people who you may not think have anything to contribute. Everybody has something to contribute."

So, in 2009, she started the blog Baltimore Slumlord Watch, on which she publishes photographs of vacant properties and information about their owners as a way to try to shame what she called "slumlords" into fixing their properties (she defines a "slumlord" as "someone who owns derelict property that causes health and safety concerns for the tenants and surrounding neighbors.") The blog has received upwards of 315,500 hits in 2013.

Of course, nobody wants to be called a slumlord. But for Ott, that was the point. "The guy who owned the very first property that I started on, he's a doctor, and when you go to find a new doctor, you Google him," she says. "So I assumed he would not be very happy about finding himself on the internet in that fashion. And I was right. He sent me a very angry email but he also cleaned out the property. He sent out a maintenance crew, and they cleaned up all the trash and they trimmed the overgrown shrubs and weeds. Then maybe a year later or less, there was a tenant in the former vacant supermarket space."

While Ott was pursuing her digital crusade against slumlords, street art was gaining credibility in the city, largely as a result of the efforts of Gaia, who curated Station North's hugely successful Open Walls project. It featured murals by over 20 artists, both local and from as far away as Portugal, Argentina, or South Africa, painted on Baltimore buildings. (It's a testament to Gaia's prominence that in 2012 City Paper named Nether "Best Street Artist Who is Not Gaia.")

Street artists have traditionally kept their identities hidden, going by names like Nether and Gaia (a practice City Paper will respect, though The Baltimore Sun recently published the names of both artists, in what Nether calls a breach of trust). And yet, there was a strange cultural moment when Gaia, wearing a sports coat and a bright red hat over his long curly hair, grinned goofily as he shared the stage with the steely Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at the March 2012 launch of Open Walls at the Windup Space on North Avenue in front of 200 people. Street art was not only legit-sort of-but the powers that be were paying attention to what street artists were saying.

Which is where Nether comes in, taking the voice that street art had gained and turning it back onto the problem most obvious to the street artists in the city. In fact, Nether had been putting up wheatpaste pieces on many of the same buildings Ott was researching, and he started using her website to do research. As a native Baltimorean, he says that housing is "my issue." He sent an email to Ott. "We were like, 'We're kind of fighting the same battle against the slumlords,'" he recalls. "So we got coffee, hit it off, and pretty quickly came up with the concept."

"We kind of talked about it [like], 'Wouldn't that be great if something like that could happen, ha ha ha,'" recalls Ott.

"At first we were like, 'This is impossible,'" Nether adds. "It's illegal, for one. But housing policy in Baltimore City has been so bad for so long that you need a radical move, a little civil disobedience specifically, to hype up conversation once again to get it in the media and bring it back to politicians possibly not getting elected over their response to some of the vacancies in their neighborhood."

Nether notes that it is actually a "legal gray area" because the images, painted or printed on paper in advance and wheatpasted to the buildings, are not permanent. And nearly anyone you talk to about Wall Hunters asks which is the greater crime, "painting a picture or letting a building get like this?," as John Childs, a neighbor, says as Tefcon wipes sticky wheatpaste from his eyes at the top of the 25-foot ladder that Nether manages to haul around in his Honda.

That is the real genius behind Wall Hunters. The residents are the natural constituency for Ott's message. And like Shawniece Smith, they take pride in their homes and their neighborhoods. But it seems like no one else does. Certainly not the landlords, whose names they wouldn't, in most cases, know. When they see artists, some of whom travel to Baltimore from other cities or countries to paint in their communities, residents feel as if someone else feels their pride. When they listen to Ott and Nether talk and see the QR codes and placards with the names and addresses of the landlords, they feel like someone feels their pain.

From an artistic perspective, Wall Hunters is stunning. Its scope and ambition make most other art projects in the city feel small and insular. With the exception of FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, politically engaged pieces aren't actually that engaged; conceptual pieces can't challenge the high concept of using vacants as canvas; digital artists can't come close to matching the integration of reality and web. Many of the images are figurative, but some like those of Doom or Spector are abstract-the former in an extraordinarily dense way, and the latter with a minimal formalism that makes the most of the building. And, indeed, more than any of the other local street art or mural projects, Wall Hunters manages to make the blight and the condition of the buildings themselves part of the artwork.

Wall Hunters aestheticizes the ruin of the vacants, but unlike so-called "ruin porn," these images turn aesthetic appreciation into anger and, hopefully, action. And unlike ruin porn images, the Wall Hunters pieces attempt to humanize the people affected by the vacancy problem. Shawniece Smith is not the only neighbor immortalized by one of the Wall Hunters' pieces. As Nether and Ben Flow, a street artist visiting from London, drive around to look at the pieces, they are flagged down by a man, Kenneth Titus, whose face was painted by Sirus Fountain on the wall at 1005 W. Lanvale St.

"Thanks to y'all, this thing's getting big," Titus says with a big grin, laughter leaking out between his gold teeth as he calls over Darryl Mackey, who is painted beside him. "We were just at the right place at the right time," Titus says. "We're stars now. It's so much at one time coming at me. People stop their cars and say, 'That's him there!' I can't thank you enough," he adds, shaking Nether's hand.

There have, however, been some negative responses to Wall Hunters; ironically, it is Gaia's contribution which has brought the most criticism. Toward the bottom of his mural on the side of a boarded-up vacant at 4727 Old York Road is the image of a suburban house transforming into a raven. Above it, a pharaoh's headdress surrounds a burning rowhouse, and a sea of cotton between it and a suburban house. Below it, Gaia painted the words "exodus" in English and "book of Exodus" in Hebrew (the Hebrew letters appear left-to-right, making the words look like gibberish to Hebrew readers).

The placard beside the mural says the building belongs to NB2 Business Trust, calling it "a Stanley Rochkind-controlled entity." Rochkind, who was previously forced to mitigate lead-paint issues in more than 500 homes, is a favorite target of Ott. But because of the structure of the trusts, Daniel Steger, the resident agent for the property told The Sun that "Rochkind is not part of the trust and does not own the home." In a subsequent blog post, City Paper's Edward Ericson Jr. showed that "the available documentation regarding ownership of that building mentions the Rochkinds at least three times, and every other real estate paper trail regarding the property also leads back to the Rochkinds" ("The Sun's Credulous Take on Stanley Rochkind," The News Hole, Aug. 13).

Though Steger maintained that Rochkind did not control the property, he also told The Sun that the mural is "not just vandalism alone. We believe it's a hate crime." Brian Spern, a lawyer for both Rochkind and NB2, called it "a blatant attempt to intimidate individuals who are Jewish. The mural speaks for itself when you see fire spewing. If anyone would have their name next to a mural of that nature, they would be afraid." (The placard on the wall beside Shawniece Smith's house reads, in a display of Ott's understated wit, "Yet another Stanley Rochkind-controlled entity.")

Neither Spern nor Steger responded to City Paper's requests for comment, but Gaia, who is working on a mural in Russia, wrote: "I would be deeply saddened if anyone in the public perceived this piece as something that was hateful towards the Jewish or African-American community. This piece tries to draw a parallel connecting the myth of exodus between the diaspora of the Israelites, the Great Migration from the south, and flight away from the city and into the suburbs. The primary reference in the piece to the seminal moment that was the '68 riots is undoubtedly a strong, and easily misconstrued image, but it is my suspicion that Steger and NB2 have used this accusation as an opportunity to divert attention away from their holdings."

As for the city, the police have not given Nether or any of the artists in the project any problem as they installed paintings (and there's no sign that hate-crimes charges have actually been filed). And Baltimore Housing seems to give reluctant props to the project. Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano told The Sun he commended them "for their commitment and courage" and said that "he would be happy to sit down with them." Cheron Porter, the agency's spokesperson, says that The Sun took the comments out of context but was willing, herself, to say nothing stronger against them than "of course, we do not condone any illegal activity."

Both Porter and Graziano point out the ways that the city's Vacants to Value program is actually doing the things Wall Hunters wants. And Nether and Ott agree. "We're trying to help them get more money," Nether says.

"My relationship with Baltimore Housing is actually pretty good," Ott adds. "Because I deal all the time with people who are in court with bad property owners, they're going through receivership processes. They are just as stumped as everybody else is and they are trying really really hard to fix this. I think they are doing the best they can."

As the first stage of Wall Hunters winds down at the end of the summer-at press time, Nether himself is putting up the final piece, in Cherry Hill-both Ott and Nether are thinking about the next stages. Filmmakers Julia Pitch and Tarek Turkey plan to release the documentary they have been filming throughout the project, and Wall Hunters is looking for an active board of directors. "I'd love to get Shawniece on the board," Nether says.

And the end game, toward which all of this activity may point?

"The best-case scenario," says Ott, "is that some of these vacant structures are demolished, some are brought into the Vacants to Value program, if they're not already. Whether you love or hate Vacants to Value, at least that way the city knows it exists. There's a gatekeeper, someone to go to, because clearly the current property owner is not someone you can go to, but with Baltimore Housing, you can."

And, indeed, one of the Wall Hunters' homes has already been torn down, by Pless Jones, who was once married to a longtime friend of the mayor and one of the city's top lobbyists ("Demolition, Man," Mobtown Beat, Aug. 28), sending a mural by Stefan Ways into the gaping hole left where four rowhouses once stood.

For Ott, the vacants are merely the most obvious symptom of larger problems facing the city. She has created a new nonprofit, Housing Policy Watch, which focuses on middle-class housing, among other things.

"Ultimately, I would like to see more attention focused on these neighborhoods like the one we're in right now," she says as Tefcon finishes his monumental mural. "Instead of Harbor Point, for example, which the city is about to hand over 400 million dollars of our tax money that we don't have to. Can you imagine what $400 million could do for the entire city, [for] East and West Baltimore neighborhoods like this? And yet the city is handing it to a wealthy developer saying, 'Sure, bleed us dry more, awesome, we love it."

She pauses and squints up at the giant mural of a man with a sword and a Wall Hunters sign.

"There is so much that could be done for neighborhoods like this, but we'd rather just give our money to [developers like Harbor Point's] Michael Beatty."

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