Roots Fest hopes to bring a sense of community to West Baltimore

, which begins Wednesday in West Baltimore, is as much a call to action as a celebration, which makes it entirely appropriate that it will be taking place on the remains of one of the most divisive urban projects in Baltimore's history.

Organizers see Roots Fest as a way to use culture and the arts to breathe new life into the surrounding community, to inspire joy and promote enthusiasm in an area where both are sorely needed. It will culminate in a two-day street festival, set for June 25 and 26 along the infamous (and now largely abandoned) "Highway to Nowhere" — a stretch of would-be interstate highway parallel to U.S. 40 that ripped apart several long-established black neighborhoods and drove a wedge into the surrounding community when it was constructed in the mid-1970s.


"That highway has been a symbol for a long time of something that was extracted from that community," says Carlton Turner, executive director of Alternate Roots, the festival's sponsor. "We're doing it there to show that there was something extracted, but there's still so much left there to share and to celebrate."

Clearly, the organizers of Roots Fest are out to do more than simply entertain — which they'll be doing in droves, thanks to a list of performers that includes singers, dancers, musicians, stage performers and spoken-word artists. During the first three days, equal emphasis will be placed on getting a dialogue going, looking for ways past old hurts. The idea, Turner says, is to use art as "the medium to get communities engaged and participating in their own uplifting and empowerment."


"We've got people coming in from all over the country," says Turner, whose Atlanta-based group has spent 35 years matching socially conscious artists with issues that could benefit from their energy. "We have artists, people in education, people in public health, public servants, civic leaders, people in higher education … all coming together to have conversations about what the role is of art, culture and creativity in the organizing and transformation of a community."

Roots Fest is, Turner says, "a party with a purpose."

The festival kicks off Wednesday with a daylong schedule of performances and discussions, beginning at 10 a.m. at the Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy, 1130 N. Caroline St. The day's offerings include a performance by actor Sheila Gaskins of "The Corner" (1:30 p.m.) and a staging of "Peaches" (7 p.m.), a "theatrical hodgepodge" by the Progress Theatre that tackles issues of identity among African-American women.

A similar schedule of events is set for Thursday, also at the STEM Academy. The day ends with the acoustic version of Roots Fest's "Late Night Raucous Caucus," an evening of music set for 10:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m. at The Loft, 120 W. North Ave. An amplified version will cap Friday's activities, while a "Performance Party" is slated for late-night Saturday, June 25, also at The Loft. "Raucous Caucus" tickets are $15.

Friday's activities will include a 35th birthday party for Alternate Roots, set for 6:30 p.m.-10 p.m. at the STEM Academy.

The two-day street party along the "Highway to Nowhere," beginning at the corner of Franklin and North Gilmor streets, opens at 10 a.m. Saturday, June 25, with a dance circle ceremony performed by area Native Americans. Free events over the two days will include an appearance by Pepito the Clown (10:30 a.m. Saturday) and a conversation with theater pioneers John O'Neal and Luis Valdez (1:30 p.m. Sunday, June 26) as wells as a dialogue on the future of Baltimore with the cast of "The Wire" (4 p.m. Saturday) and music from Washington's "Godfather of Go-Go," Chuck Brown (3 p.m. Saturday).

If you go

Roots Fest 2011 runs June 22-26 at various spots, culminating in a two-day outdoor celebration along West Baltimore's "Highway to Nowhere," beginning at the corner of Franklin and North Gilmor streets. Most events are free. For more information and a full schedule, and to order tickets, go to