Abused & Tired: The Bell Foundry's artist-tenants and the Baltimore Rock Opera Society bounce back after eviction
The Bell Foundry's artist-tenants and the Baltimore Rock Opera Society bounce back after eviction
by Maura Callahan and Rebekah Kirkman
Photos by Audrey Gatewood
Upstairs tenants of the Bell Foundry (from left) Elon, Grant, Person, Georgia, Bri, Faraji, Life, and Qué
T he Bell Foundry was a place where people lived and worked and paid rent and played music and made art; it was also a place where people crashed if they were passing through, or had fallen on hard times, or felt unsafe in another place.
Over the past several years, it housed upwards of a dozen artists upstairs, and on the first floor, it functioned as a headquarters and workshop for the Baltimore Rock Opera Society (BROS), an accredited non-profit and one of the most popular—and populist—community theater troupes in the city. The upstairs tenants, who cycled through over the years, put on shows in the basement, housed a print shop, collaborated on art and music, skated in the backyard skate park, and served as a loose-but-coherent collective. The Bell became a staple of the local arts scene over its seven or so years of existence.
On the cold and wet December morning that city officials evicted the tenants of the Bell Foundry, the upstairs folks had just been talking about how to make their space structurally safer. The Ghost Ship fire in Oakland had happened days before, and several Bell tenants had friends who perished in that fire. A few former residents said that the fire marshals brought up Oakland during the surprise inspection of the Bell, where they found enough structural and physical safety issues—an overwhelmed electrical system connected to a stove, a makeshift third floor built above the second, evidence of past electrical fire, removed ceiling beams, insufficient entrances and exits to the basement, fire barriers missing between spaces, among several other violations—to declare the space an imminent threat and shut it down.
Because the upstairs tenants weren’t supposed to be living there—the space was officially understood as artist studios only—they couldn’t admit they were living there at first, which meant they weren’t offered assistance relocating. But it was no secret that it was being used as a living space.
The community came out strong to support the evictees—in the form of offering housing, moving assistance, and raising over $21,000 via GoFundMe.
Immediately, the BROS feared the end of the space that they’d spent years improving would mean the end of the company altogether.
“It’s entirely possible this could sink us,” BROS Artistic Director Aran Keating said on the day of the eviction.
No one wants their space to be unsafe. And for many of the Bell Foundry’s tenants, physical safety was a less pressing concern, especially for those of marginalized identities. Within the last year, the Bell, as a home and as a venue, had become a safer space for primarily people of color and queer and trans folks.
“This place saved my life,” said second floor tenant Qué Pequeño after being kicked out. “Literally.”
For BROS, the Bell was where they built their elaborate sets and props, fashioned costumes, brainstormed librettos, dreamt up heroes and villains, and taught their hundreds of volunteers how to make live theater from scratch since 2013.
The Bell Foundry eviction still marks its tenants and the art scene at large. A few weeks after the eviction, new mayor Catherine Pugh established a task force tied to venue safety, though it has been deemed ineffectual by many and still does not include any Bell Foundry tenants as members. Related to this task force is an agreement between the city, property owners, and artists that certain undisclosed DIY venues would put a temporary hold on having shows until the spaces are brought up to code, which has effectively killed a lot of the energy of the music and arts scene.
The upstairs tenants lost their workspace and home, and downstairs the BROS were locked out of their headquarters until mid-February, when they acquired a use and occupancy permit after making safety improvements to the floor—the violations of which were relatively minor and inexpensive to repair compared to the significant violations found on the second floor and basement—and were allowed to re-enter and resume their work.
But during the time that the Bell was totally shuttered, BROS put on a performance at the Ottobar, and many of the second floor tenants, including Qué, organized and performed at shows at other venues, and remain constant figures in the scene even in their displacement. The massive blow to the scene wasn’t quite enough to break it.
Members of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society (from left) Jessie Delaplaine , Kay-Megan Washington, and Kristina Green at BROS Headquarters at the Bell Foundry
Three months after the eviction, everyone from the Bell’s upstairs has a place to stay. Kind of. Some people moved out of Baltimore, or back home with their parents; some just recently moved into more stable housing, while others are still floating around, crashing on couches, trying to find a place.
They mourn the end of the Bell, and though its closure wasn’t a complete surprise, something special was lost.
“I’m pretty sure the Bell Foundry eviction has affected people in different ways,” said Qué in a recent interview. “But we all kinda knew that shit was gonna happen eventually.”
A towering social services building was constructed right next to the Bell Foundry and opened near the end of 2015. The new building went up fast—about a year after the city started reviewing designs—and it’s a just a couple feet, at most, away from the Bell.
“I just knew that no one’s gonna have us in that space without bothering us,” said musician Elon Battle, who had lived in the Bell for about two years and started hanging out there before that. “It’s just too much: too many black people coming in and out of the space. And it’s a social services building next to us probably wondering, ‘Oh, what is going on in this space, all these people coming in and out all the time playing music, cookouts,’ all this stuff. They don't allow you to have that much fun without having some kind of license.”
Since around 2009, the Bell Foundry had been seen as a predominantly white artist/punk house, and over the last several months or so before the eviction, the warehouse had become more of a POC- and LGBTQ-centric space, both for the tenants and the performers. Qué started booking shows for primarily black and brown artists in the Bell’s basement space and renamed it You Know TF Where—making it a priority that POC artists and attendees felt like they belonged there. At the time of the eviction, more than half of the tenants were people of color and non-binary people, women, and queer-identified folks. This was a shift that many of the Bell tenants noted, and it was especially significant in the rapidly developing neighborhood of Greenmount West, in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District.
“For a lot of people, being in the Bell Foundry was a lot safer than where else they would’ve been,” said former tenant Georgia McCandlish. “It’s safer than being in a home under threat of eviction, safer than being in an abusive relationship where you’re trapped into an expensive lease, safer than being on a street that’s highly policed and someone might arrest or report you because of your skin color. There’s so many layers to what safety looks like and structural hazard is only one of them—and not even, for many people, the most important one.”
“If there was someone being transphobic at the Bell Foundry they were gone, and every event explicitly stated that transphobia is not tolerated,” said Ava Pipitone, a former resident of the Bell and the executive director of the Baltimore Transgender Alliance. “Never did a trans person have to kick out a transphobic person. Cis people were always ready to bash back, groups of punks were ready to bash fascists; we literally had meetings about defense.”
Though Qué and other tenants thought the eviction was going to happen later on, most residents’ creative projects, activism, and organizing efforts haven’t been hampered. Qué set up a studio where he collaborates with friends and makes music, and he’s been booking and performing in shows (under the name Station North Sadboi) regularly at The Crown and EMP Collective.
Qué plans to stay in the Copycat building—a nearby live/work warehouse—until summertime. A few other folks from the Bell—including Tariq, who makes music under the name Infinity Knives, and Elon—are staying there too while they figure out a more stable living situation.
Ava moved out of a Charles Village house into the Bell Foundry about six months before it was shut down. “And then I go into this queer, autonomous, warehouse POC sanctuary space,” she said, “and I’m building bicycles two feet away from my bedroom and I have my swords—my hack and slash emotional therapy—with all the people in the Bell Foundry and then the police shut it down.”
She was able to move back into that Charles Village house with no problems because she feels supported by her community and, she acknowledged, because she’s white.
At the Bell, Ava said people didn’t feel the need to fit into “cis-conforming” beauty standards. “We’re all queerdos, and we all give each other a lot of space, and use consent before we describe each other’s bodies,” she said. “There’s safety in identity [there] that’s so much deeper than in other places.”
She often let friends who needed a place to crash stay with her at the Bell because “having stable housing while trans is hard,” she said. She shared some of the longer-term goals she and the tenants had—a DIY emergency shelter, backyard renovations—and if they could have owned the building, how much more they could have done.
“Just having a [cheap] space in that neighborhood that anybody could access, not owned by a white person anymore would’ve been super important, or not being filled by a cis person would’ve been super important,” she said. “It could’ve been what it was, but more.”
Person and Georgia in front of the Bell Foundry
But for her, the momentum for the Baltimore Transgender Alliance is still going strong. Right now the alliance is fortifying its infrastructure and applying for grants, and hoping to within a couple of years start a trans-inclusive residential space in the city. She is frustrated that when the trans community demands housing—as they have for decades—they get a “new HIV study” instead.
“There’s a very clear and loud undertone to a lot of things,” she said, referring to the lack of shelter and resources for trans people and the legislation that puts them more in danger. “Like bathrooms, it’s not about bathrooms, it’s are we allowed in the population or not?”
Georgia McCandlish and Person Abide agreed that the momentum that Bell Foundry tenants had in their respective projects continues. Georgia still volunteers with Baltimore Jail Support, which meets people getting out of jail every Sunday evening and offers them food, clothes, and rides home. Jail Support, which used to use the Bell for meetings and storage, is still looking for a home for their supplies, as is Castle Print Shop (find them—and Qué and Elon—at Open Space’s Publications and Multiples Fair in April), whose equipment is now at the Holy Underground, another DIY space.
In December, Georgia took advantage of the freedom from rent and traveled south for a bit to visit some friends and help out with a project or two here or there. “When I’ve been here I’ve been keeping two bags in my car and staying with the ample friends who have offered, and I just got a room,” they said. The room is in Horizontal Housing, a housing co-op started by people from the Baltimore Free Farm collective, who had to go through a number of legal processes to buy the Hampden property.
After the eviction, Person did some renovation work on a vacant home that her friend owns in exchange for a place to stay. Dealing with that upheaval, she said, “was burdensome in a way that’s wearing, and I feel tired, but I was able to turn my concerns toward making space for other members of the [Bell Foundry] household.”
Many people said the Bell community was like family. “The BROS are always singing, it’s real easy to catch a creative energy and exchange it with people,” Elon said. “There would be days I didn’t have any money for food and someone would make a big meal. They were all about that kind of thing.”
The community’s response—both immediate neighbors and the art community who helped move out and clean, who offered places to stay and store people’s belongings, and who raised money to help the evictees—was heartening.
The Bell Foundry was important for different reasons for different people over the years.
“A lot of people who invested money into us once we got evicted were people who were artists who have traveled, and when they needed a space to stay they hit up the Bell Foundry,” Elon said. “Historically that space is like a beacon. We created a lot of cool stuff in there. I’ve had some cool-ass experiences with people there. So I can just understand, and it makes me feel good that our community can really come together for a specific cause like that. A place where you can come and just like—you could tell everyone’s having a different experience at the same time.”
BROS member Kay-Megan Washington in the Bell Foundry workshop
Just days after the Baltimore Rock Opera Society moved back into its headquarters on the first floor of the Bell Foundry in mid-February with a brand new use and occupancy permit, the space looked like it had for years: a fridge scrawled with handwritten notes, a coat of arms bearing the BROS emblem, lumber leaning against walls and tables, a few spongy couches and armchairs surrounding a large oriental rug, an eclectic collection of mugs and beer steins hanging from nails on the wall. Anyone who has sat in the audience at one of BROS’ large-scale original productions—from “The Electric Pharaoh” to “Gründlehämmer” to “Brides of Tortuga” to “The Adventures of Stardust Lazerdong”—would recognize the distinctive handcrafted props, instruments, costumes, and set pieces strewn across the walls.
Aside from the emptiness of the second floor and basement, the most striking difference could be found above the entrance outside the building: The big “Used Tires” sign had been changed to read “Abused & Tired.”
BROS Artistic Director Aran Keating said while the reopening of headquarters was the result of months of hard work on the part of BROS staff and volunteers to get the space up to code (work that totaled about $1,200 of BROS funds) and appealing to city agencies, he doesn’t feel like celebrating. For a group that prides itself on its ability to party, that means something—but BROS is not finished.
“Either we’re going to figure out something positive to do right now or we’re going to quit,” Aran said. “I think that is a danger and that did feel like a danger—like if this doesn’t work out, like are we going to ask people to do even more than they’re already doing, like how much more before something breaks? The positive direction I think is saying, ‘We’re not going to allow ourselves to be pushed around anymore; we’re going to be in control the next time this happens.’”
This was not the first time BROS was kicked out of its space. In 2013, during the run of “Murdercastle,” the largest BROS production at the time, the company was told to vacate the Autograph Playhouse, where it had held performances since 2011 after making significant improvements to the space in accordance with a handshake agreement with the leaseholder. Though the Playhouse had previously served as both a performance venue and workshop for BROS, at the time of the eviction the company had moved non-performance operations to the Bell Foundry. The company was permitted to complete the run of “Murdercastle,” so long as immediate safety improvements were made, but following the run the Playhouse became defunct. Since then, BROS productions have been staged in churches, former theater spaces, Lithuanian Hall, the Creative Alliance, and the Chesapeake Arts Center. The team would take apart sets built over a period of months in the Bell and reassemble them in the temporary venue within a few weeks before showtime.
“It just felt like after all that, after all these people who love working with us and love having a space, to find that we were kind of up in the air again was just the worst feeling,” said Managing Director Shannon Light Hadley of the Bell Foundry eviction. To be back in the Bell again, she added, is not particularly satisfying knowing that BROS’ lease ends Dec. 31 and is unlikely to be renewed. “It’s just kind of bittersweet to put up a fresh coat of paint just to know that in a couple of months we will probably leave this space for good.”
Production Director Debra Lenik noted that after all their labor, the company is simply back where they were before the eviction, only their programming has been delayed. When the city booted the tenants out in December, BROS was just three weeks out from a New Year’s Eve show at the Ottobar, a variety show appropriately dubbed “Throw 2016 In The Trash.” The team nonetheless managed to put together and sell out the show in time for the Dec. 31 date, but the next full-length rock opera, a remount of a previously staged original production titled “The Terrible Secret of Lunastus,” has been pushed back to the fall when it was originally slated for this spring.
During the period the Bell was shuttered, the building was broken into and about $2,000 worth of tools was stolen from the BROS workshop. And around the same time, Studio 14, a practice space in West Baltimore used by several Baltimore musicians and BROS, was shut down by the fire department for permit violations.
“It was another thing of, like, feeling that we’re really not in control of our destiny,” Aran said.
But the outpouring of support from fellow artists and others helped the group get back in the Bell while affirming the importance of BROS’ place in the community. The Station North Tool Library donated tools after BROS’ were stolen. Many others continue to offer storage and rehearsal spaces. And now a third of the way through their fundraising campaign via Crowdrise, BROS has gathered nearly $30,000 in donations since December. (On March 11 at Space 2640, BROS will host its third annual “Swanktacular” fundraising gala, featuring a live performance from “Gründlehämmer” in collaboration with the Occasional Symphony, among other highlights.)
The mission of the Crowdrise campaign is to help secure a permanent home for BROS, a building they intend to call “The Paradise” that will house both a performance space and a workshop for building sets, props, and costumes and for community engagement. The eviction pushed BROS to expedite the search—an effort that began years ago, but with less urgency.
“We’re used to having a 3-5 year plan, maybe,” said Debra. “We’ve never had the opportunity for that kind of permanence, so it’s been really valuable to picture where we want to be when we’re more than a community theater. We talk a lot about the desire for BROS to be a regional theater, to be a selling point for Baltimore City. Like, oh, you go to Baltimore and go to the aquarium? No! You go to Baltimore and you see the Baltimore Rock Opera Society because it’s unique. No other city has that.”
Aran added that community involvement will always be an integral part of BROS productions—it will always be a community theater—but “at its most extreme version of what a community theater can really be.”
During productions, BROS has as many as 125 to 200 volunteers working on a show, and over 300 individuals identify as BROS members—an honor achieved by volunteering on one or more of the several BROS productions over the years. With a new, more flexible space, the management team hopes to expand their community outreach and volunteer involvement by offering production workshops and skill-building mentorship. But navigating talks with city agencies and developers and communicating the importance of a company like BROS has proven difficult.
“It comes down to dollar signs,” Aran said. “Some of the advice that we’ve been getting is to quantify as much and anything that you can as far as what impact you actually create. And that is something that is sort of abhorrent to most artists in a lot of ways, when you’re dealing with a lot of intangibles and things like inspiration and vision and abstract ideas….It's incredibly hard to flip that switch in your mind: I’m an artist, I’m a business, but my business isn’t just in creating money, it’s in creating impact in other ways.”
This is the crux of a problem artists have always faced, but it has now become more of a crisis in Baltimore as the existence of artist-run spaces and support for artists hinges on what art can do for economic development.
“There’s a real resistance in a lot of people in the DIY scene and the general underground, people who wanna create art, create a really healthy scene, and they don’t want to interact with all those mechanisms,” Aran said. “But that’s really the question the scene is facing right now: How much do you want to be a part of this system?”
BROS is in ongoing talks with various city agencies in the search for The Paradise, and Aran said it’s likely that after the Bell lease ends, they’ll have to move into a temporary space before securing their permanent headquarters.
“I don’t feel that anyone in the city is out to get us, so I think most of the individuals have been trying to help where they can,” Debra said. “There’s a lot of expressed support and we are seeking ways to translate that voiced support into tangible support.”
So far, Aran and Debra said, they’ve received encouragement from both the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore and the Central Baltimore Partnership.
Like the second floor tenants, no one from BROS was invited to serve as a member on the Mayor’s Safe Art Space Task Force, and the team had to be asked to be put on a list to receive updates on meeting times. Echoing sentiments from others in the scene, Aran is skeptical of the task force’s power to affect how the city treats DIY spaces, but now that he’s done fighting to get the Bell back, he hopes BROS can play a more active role in those talks.
Life and Faraji outside the Bell Foundry
Many former Bell residents saw the formation of the task force as “opportunistic.” Even though it was created in response to the Bell’s closure, no residents were invited to participate, causing some to be suspicious the city was using art to spur development. But some former tenants, including Qué and Person, have been present at the meetings, despite the task force’s tendency to wait until the last minute to alert the public about when and where the meetings will happen.
Many people—notably, some of the committee members who are both artists and representatives of local arts organizations, including DIY spaces—have pushed back somewhat against the stated mission of the task force to “create a citywide network of safe, cost-effective, contemporary, living, live/work, studio, and performance space for established and emerging artists.”
At a moment in the first task force meeting when it seemed as though some of the city officials were struggling to understand the scope of DIY—that many of these spaces are where people live, work, and perform—Elissa Blount Moorhead, a task force member and the Station North arts district’s executive director, prodded the group to expand their ideas about what goes on in these spaces. “There are sanctuary activities, quasi-social-service activities, there’s all sorts of things that happen when people are co-habitating,” she said.
For many artists—and many of the former Bell tenants—centering artists and artist housing in a conversation about a bigger housing crisis in Baltimore is wrong-headed at best. “What we’re really talking about are economics and capitalism and a limited access to resources, you know, and we also need to talk about things like minimum wage, public transportation,” said Lu Zhang, also a task force member and The Contemporary’s interim director. “Artists are not aliens with other needs than other people.”
The city knows why it is advantageous for them to focus on artists, Person said, alluding to the task force’s mission statement. “Artists contribute to the economic health of the city,” Person said. “[The city knows] that the tax base goes down when there aren’t people who make and maintain cultural relevance, make space for other people who are mobile enough to come to Baltimore and participate.”
Georgia added that their dream is some kind of cooperatively and collectively owned house and land that can foster and sustain its community. “And that’s not what a safe arts building is gonna look like—it’s not going to focus on the autonomy,” they said. “That’s not what a lot of housing crisis solutions even look like.”
An intentional community like what Georgia wants to work toward, and what most in the DIY community would say these kinds of spaces do, affirms residents’ ability to have agency and control over where they live. “And it certainly doesn’t look like that for anyone who’s in a historical lineage of being denied that [autonomy],” they said, “so, like, black people in the city, or struggling working class in general.”
At the first task force meeting in January, Person told the room that a lot of money (about $4,000) was being put into the Bell each month with their rent payment, and that some of that money could have gone back toward making the building structurally safer. Most of the dozen-plus people who were staying at the Bell would pay rent, but members had set it up so that there was still enough money to make the total if someone couldn’t pay.
“That financial structure was supporting a community of people that are holding a space. That extra space then turns around and serves the community as well. There is a model somewhere in there, which is why I keep almost having an optimistic [view],” Person said.
Consistent with many projects the city and its public/private corporation sponsors stick their hands into, particularly ones that use art as an economic revitalization tool, gentrification and displacement are some of the prevailing concerns. “I don’t know if you can do stuff like that not from the ground up,” Georgia said, “and have it come out not super fucked up.”
“The city could take steps to be wild and collapse both the mortgage and foreclosure industries” and bring back something like Robert Embry’s 1980s “dollar houses” program, Person offered. “I just think that there are only excuses for the city not taking steps to enact reparations for all of the violence [it caused] through housing discrimination.”
Though Georgia hasn’t been able to attend any of the task force meetings, their perspective on it is “a failure of any radical imagination and a deliberate unwillingness to go there. When that unwillingness [is] backed by power and profit and bureaucracy and forces that have other drives in the city. . . . It’s not like Hopkins or Under Armour or these larger developers are actually motivated by housing agency and reparations.”
At the task force’s first open forum, at the War Memorial on Feb. 16, many filled the seats, though dozens steadily peeled away throughout the nearly three-hour forum. Some leaders of local DIY spaces and groups were noticeably absent, a symptom that musician and task force member Dan Deacon attributed to a distrust within the DIY community for the city government and even for the task force itself.
Deacon and City Councilman Ryan Dorsey (3rd District), who spoke as a member of the public, said they’d heard from multiple sources that certain DIY spaces had gotten wind of imminent city inspections they fear will leave them in the same situation as the tenants of the Bell Foundry. Baltimore Fire Department Assistant Chief Teresa Everett and acting Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman, both present for the public forum, denied that any inspections specifically targeting artist spaces were planned or taking place. Everett emphasized that “there is no list” of artist spaces kept by her department: Buildings are categorized by occupancy—residential, commercial, etc.
“These spaces exist and they’re not homes, they’re not just workspaces and they’re not residential, they’re not industrial—it’s a gray area, it’s a new paradigm of space that doesn’t exist,” Deacon said, adding that he fears many DIY spaces will be shuttered as a result of the apparent inspections by the time the task force hands over its recommendations to the mayor. But it’s not that the Fire Department is targeting artist-run spaces, he said: Among other possible explanations for the inspections, there’s talk of people with political motivations tipping off the Fire Department in an effort to get those spaces shut down—to silence what they see as incubators of leftist action.
Deacon and others encouraged a moratorium on evictions, citing the work of Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff in the wake of the Ghost Ship fire that killed 36. Schaff issued an executive order that protects tenants in unpermitted spaces from eviction (unless that space poses an immediate threat) while the owners get the spaces up to code.
Echoing the sentiments of several community members who spoke out at the forum, task force members Moorhead and Stewart Watson, artist and co-owner of Oliver Street studios and Area 405, stressed the importance of amplifying and revitalizing existing institutions, buildings, and projects. Current Space and Le Mondo, neighbors in the Bromo District on North Howard Street, were repeatedly cited as “unicorns,” rare artist-run projects to achieve ownership of their respective buildings.
“I hope that we can teach [each other] how this is already being done and how existing work can be supported as opposed to thinking about words like what's going to be 'given' or ‘created’ for us,” said Moorhead. “We don't actually need that; what we really need is equity, access, and clear and navigable tools to do what we already do.”
The task force expects to present their recommendations, based on their discussions and input from the community, to Mayor Catherine Pugh sometime in the middle of this year, according to task force co-chair Jon Laria, a real estate lawyer.
Many are doubtful of the task force’s mission and ability to come up with solutions, but they still attend meetings in part to weigh in on the conversation—and to learn more about resources and funding for the projects they eventually want to do. Qué is looking into one day buying land in an accessible location for black people from all over Baltimore.
“That’s still the goal, that will always be the goal, that’s why I attend these meetings,” he said. “And all this did was change my plans a little bit. I still plan on booking shows, still plan on creating a safe haven for my friends, and I still plan on using the studio to put out mad songs and just do stuff with my friends because we feel like it. It just won’t be in the Bell Foundry anymore. Even if we find a place better than that, that’ll always be the initial place we started from. It is dispiriting, but it doesn’t stop us.”
Qué in front of the Bell Foundry
Aran believes that BROS has a chance to move forward, but unlike other DIY artists—like some of the independent artists who occupied the second floor of the Bell and have not been able to re-enter—BROS has the advantage of producing work that has mass appeal that can reach a large audience, not to mention a media team, to help advocate for their value in the community and lay their claim to space.
“I’m not feeling super optimistic about the city’s underground scene right now because it’s hard, it’s really hard. I mean we’ve struggled for years to get to this point, and there’s very few other arts organizations that have that level of organization,” Aran said. “You see it with some individual artists that people are really out there hustling, but that shit is hard. And there’s no money in it, so people are scraping for these Baker grants or the Rubys or whatever to get a grant here and there. It’s just hard to make it.”
Looking around the common room in BROS headquarters, Shannon could recall the origins of every artifact on the walls, every quote on the fridge. She helped to make this floor the way it is now; she along with her compatriots tore down the walls of the building when they first moved in and built them back up, adorning them over the years with memorabilia. In a way, the headquarters they built into the Bell is what the company members had dreamed of since they’d seen the underground lairs and tree forts from the films of their youth, like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “The Goonies.”
Packing it all up—or tossing it out—when BROS moves on will feel surreal, Shannon said, beginning to choke up.
“That’s one of the best things about these spaces,” she said. “We’re taking something that’s old and it’s still beautiful and we’re reusing it versus just letting it sit there and rot….I think we should be able to use these buildings, actually preserve them, put life back into them, but be proud of what they were versus just tearing them down—obviously if they’re structurally sound—but building something from scratch that doesn’t fit in a neighborhood that has history seems dismissive of what beautiful things are here. The best thing about Baltimore is the ability to use these spaces and the creative ways they’re put to work.”
The city respects organizations with resumes and institutional backing more than it respects “black creative alliances,” Qué said back in December. And Elon pointed out the irony in the notion of “giving back” to your community that’s hammered into our heads as kids: “But then you do set up an organization, you do set up a thing to really sustain something like that [and they’re] just like oh, you really did it. Actually no, we don’t want you to do that. We don’t actually want you to set up a sustainable system for people that we want to keep oppressed.”
He maintains that most of his current troubles are things he can get over.
“Creating art really makes me feel better,” Elon said. “I can feel super discouraged and confused and I can create something and feel better. And also just seeing some of the people from the Bell Foundry every now and then makes me feel good.”
Additional reporting by Brandon Soderberg and Brandon Weigel.