Mural project aims to transform buildings, perception of East Baltimore

East Baltimore's Oliver and Johnston Square neighborhoods have suffered high levels of violence, blight and drug trafficking.

But they're also home to historic landmarks such as the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum and Green Mount Cemetery, resilient communities and efforts to redevelop.


Yvonne Hardy-Phillips — whose family has invested in East Baltimore since the early 1970s — is intent on telling the neighborhood's story, fostering pride and making sure that area is recognized as a vital part of Baltimore. The Maryland Institute College of Art graduate student, 64, has commissioned eight artists to reimagine the outside of two vacant buildings she owns at Harford Avenue and Biddle Streets as a tribute to the community and its history.

The project "designates that particular property and our neighborhood as a destination. It connects to the idea of mapping your community, which then invites others into the space," Hardy-Phillips said. A map with a red star near the location's storefront is just another way "to say that we've been here, we are here, and we're going to be here."


Her effort is titled "You Are Here."

Bold works adorn the two buildings, and a nearby fence is lined with colorful crocheted medallions by artist Deb Jansen. There are an abstract mosaic of wood, glass, clay and metal by MacArthur Fellow Joyce J. Scott; black-and-white wheatpaste portraits of members of the community by photographer Chris Metzger, and world-renowned Baltimore-based street artist Gaia's mural of Henrietta Lacks and Johns Hopkins.

"It's a beacon in a neighborhood that has become a passageway, a throughway, a route," artist Scott said of the buildings. Now, she added, it's a reason to bask in the beauty of the community.

Hardy-Phillips, a curator for more than 30 years in the Baltimore area, decided on the project for the thesis of her master's in curatorial practice. Instead of a standard gallery or museum space, Hardy-Phillips chose the two buildings on Harford Avenue.

Both lie outside the state-designated boundary of the Baltimore National Heritage Area, which promotes tourism and offers grants to nonprofits within the boundaries. Hardy-Phillips and community members have been petitioning for years to have East Baltimore included in the state-designated boundaries.

"She's been very supportive and excited for a boundary extension, so we've been working with her on extending the boundary, hopefully in the near future," said Jeff Buchheit, executive director of the heritage area organization. But Hardy-Phillips, who now lives in Mount Vernon, hopes to aid the process by showing the appeal of East Baltimore.

Her parents, Doris E. and Ernest W. Hardy, bought the 1137 and 1139 Harford Avenue buildings in the early 1970s. Her mother used the storefront at 1139 to open an ice cream parlor and sandwich shop.

"It was a big deal," said Hardy-Phillips, adding that Mayor William Donald Schaefer paid her mother a visit.


Hardy-Phillips inherited the buildings, making them her home while attending Towson University starting in 1976, renting them out to families and opening up a deli before she finally closed them around 2007. But with the exterior, she sought to make a statement.

Once home to German and Irish immigrants, East Baltimore "was still a very nice neighborhood during the late '50s, '60s, '70s when it turned into an African-American neighborhood," said Hardy-Phillips, who is African-American. Now, she said, the story is often focused on the drug epidemic, unemployment, the 1968 riots and the ones that followed Freddie Gray's death.

"I think there's a negative narrative that tries to put Baltimore in a trick bag of before and after the '68 riots as if we have no other history, and now, we got the before and after of the 2015 riots as if there's no way to talk about ... history or what might have led to this," Hardy-Phillips said. "I think it's a real incomplete picture and I think art can paint a more vibrant, complete and truthful picture of what was, what is and what could be."

In 2011, Hardy-Phillips recruited Baltimore-based artist-duo Jessie Unterhalter and Katey Truhn to paint the south wall with bold colors, green foliage and large brown hands holding cityscapes, a way to portray urban living and draw people into the area, said Hardy-Phillips.

She enlisted photographer and Stevenson University senior lecturer Metzger, 36, who created the two-story wheatpaste "I Am That I Am" mural on the buildings' south wall, an homage to the iconic "I Am a Man" photo taken by photojournalist Ernest Withers during the 1968 Memphis, Tenn., sanitation workers' strike. The mural features portraits of more than a dozen notable men and women in the community, including Jenné Afiya Matthews, founder of the all-women of color arts collective Balti Gurls; Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, who leads the Baltimore Police Department's community outreach; and Mark Collins, assistant principal of Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary School.

Each posed and finished the phrase "I am"; their words — "a leader," "alive," "historian," "love," "committed" — later dispersed throughout the mural. The project caused a buzz within the community, according to Regina Hammond, president of neighborhood association Re-build Johnston Square.

"I know when the project was completed, everybody was running to see it. That corner has been empty for a few years. To see some interest in that area, it was exciting," said Hammond, a 30-plus-year resident of Johnston Square.


On the north wall, Gaia's vibrant depiction of Hopkins, who posthumously founded the hospital in East Baltimore and the university that bear his name, is painted next to former Hopkins patient Lacks, whose cancer cells — also depicted — have led to breakthroughs in medical research. It's a conversation across space and time, Hardy-Phillips said.

Members of Lacks' family — grandchildren, great-grandchildren and her sister-in-law — visited while Gaia was painting.

"It brought a tear to my eye," Hardy-Phillips said. "We took a lot of pictures."

Also on the north wall, Megan Lewis' mural "I Am Your Sister, Not Your Competition" depicts three black women of different hues with flowing hair that all but defies gravity — a dialogue about support and love among women of color — and the mosaic by Scott.

"They are much more about velocity and rhythm and about tone, and there's also something about humans there, too," said Scott of the mosaic panels, created with the help of students in a workshop held at her Station North studio. "I hope there's something [people] are bemused by, that they want to come and take a look to figure out the story that they want to add to it."

"It is also important that African-American neighborhoods that are that close to Station North have the ability to shine as well and to show that all of these neighborhoods have artwork and something wonderful in them. [Hardy-Phillips'] gone the extra mile to not only create a mural, but to create this ... wonderful piece of sculpture that you can see from helicopters," Scott said.


On a recent Wednesday, handyman Raymond David Smith, 53, was fixing the "You Are Here" poster near the storefront of the building. Big red letters spell out "MICA EDU" near the roof (a nod to the school that supported Hardy-Phillips through the process), and a 3D heart sculpture by artist Nicole Fall is suspended in the air between two windows — a symbol of the coming resuscitation of both the building and East Baltimore, Hardy-Phillips said.

Smith said the project has been "good for the neighborhood." He's seen people stop to ogle the murals — a stark change from the buildings years ago when they were unpainted and sometimes vandalized.

"The murals made a big difference. ... I'm proud."

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But Hardy-Phillips, who graduates this spring, said they aren't finished yet.

Scott will produce more mosaics, and Hardy-Phillips has been brainstorming the possibilities, like a cultural center in the nearby empty lot, a coffee shop in the storefront — something Hardy-Phillips says the neighborhoods lack — and a way for neighbors to express their visions and ideas for the space.

"I'm sort of following a family tradition of trying to do monumental projects that uplift the community right on that same corner," said Hardy-Phillips, but she doesn't want to forget the origins of the building.


"The artwork was assembled and applied to the architecture built by the immigrants, so there's a historical connection for me. I don't want that to be lost," she said.

"It's important to have a true, complete and deep history so that everyone cares about East Baltimore, not just African-Americans."