Before Alejandra Flores gave birth to her son, Creative Alliance was just a name in their neighborhood. Over a decade later, the Highlandtown-based organization’s classes and events have shaped Joaquin Miller’s young life.
From his very first Great Halloween Lantern Parade to after-school programs and weekend art classes, 11-year-old Joaquin has grown up with Creative Alliance.
“When he was born and we went to the first Lantern Parade, we fell in love,” Flores said of the procession of illuminated, handmade lanterns through Patterson Park that’s become one of Baltimore’s most anticipated Halloween traditions. “After that, we haven’t skipped one.”
Despite Creative Alliance’s emphasis on the arts, the nonprofit considers itself a service organization centered on building community, especially in — but also beyond — Southeast Baltimore. As it closes out its third decade, its drive to reach and teach children, older adults, and everyone in between got a boost with the opening of a $5 million building on Eastern Avenue across from its headquarters at Patterson Theater.
The nonprofit’s leaders say the classrooms, dance studio and test kitchen in the 10,000-square-foot Creativity Center will allow it to vastly expand its educational programming, which was limited to a small classroom amid resident artist spaces and art galleries on the Patterson’s second floor.
In a diverse area that is feeling the tugs of gentrification and is blocks from neighborhoods on both ends of Baltimore’s economic divide, Creative Alliance wants to be a hub where people of all ages and backgrounds access the arts, connect with neighbors and learn something.
The nonprofit sees the Creativity Center supporting those goals through a targeted but interconnected approach. It hopes to reach preschoolers and older adults earlier in the day, older children after school lets out in the afternoon and other adults and artists in the evenings.
In the center, Gregory Smith, the group’s executive director, envisions dance, cooking and arts classes happening simultaneously, all relating to the same regional or cultural theme.
“I think it does allow us really novel ways of looking at, ‘How do you extend an experience for our patrons?’” Smith said.
Hosting multiple programs at once exposes people to arts they may not otherwise encounter, said Heather Keating, the organization’s communication and marketing director, who has seen that in action at the Patterson. Patrons come for one event, then stumble on another gallery, performance or class that piques their interest.
“There’s beauty in the overlaps,” she said.
During the Creativity Center’s grand opening on a warm day late last fall, the building was packed with people learning to make sushi, creating art, and dancing to salsa, hip-hop and Mexican folk songs.
“People were on the stairwell and trying to get out of each other’s way,” said Rachel Rush, Creative Alliance’s education coordinator. “It was nice to get our community excited about the space, too, ‘cause we’ve been so excited for so long.”
Smith expects a lot of experimentation over the first year as the organization defines the building’s audience and seeks potential partners.
Even as it looks outward, Creative Alliance wants the Creativity Center, built on the site of the old La Raza Cantina bar, to be a gathering space and resource for its Highlandtown neighbors.
“Thinking specifically about what it used to be, which was a neighborhood nuisance bar, I kind of look at it like being like the phoenix transforming through the fire,” Smith said.
On a chilly night after the grand opening, it already was beginning to feel like a home away from home for some. Flores and her son were in a fused-glass art class in one classroom, and down the hall, Keith Curley, a chef who’s transitioning back into teaching, was leading a pickling class in the center’s test kitchen.
As Curley’s students introduced themselves, they found that they had something in common — they all lived nearby. The farthest anyone had traveled was eight blocks.
“We’re in the process of starting our family, so I’m always so glad I’m close by the Creative Alliance,” Roxie Alsruhe, 35, said. “For me, the arts were just like a class you had to take in elementary school, or you had to have a lot of money to take art classes.
“Here it’s a community thing.”
With Latino immigrants settling in the historically Eastern European immigrant hub of Highlandtown, nearly 30% of the neighborhood’s residents identify as Hispanic or Latino, compared with a little more than 10% when Creative Alliance moved there at the turn of the century, according to Baltimore Department of Planning analyses of census data.
For an organization whose mission is to connect people of diverse backgrounds, the traditions that immigrants bring with them offer the alliance an opportunity to serve them and their new neighbors.
“When we have folks who are coming from a home country or another destination en masse sometimes, they often want to have a place to share and celebrate their culture, and a lot of culture is based and rooted in food and art,” said Amanda Smit-Peters, the manager of the Highlandtown’s Main Street program in the Southeast Community Development Corporation, a frequent Creative Alliance collaborator.
In this way, the Creativity Center’s test kitchen is a portal.
“When you’re cooking, you learn not just about the food itself, but the stories behind it,” Smit-Peters said.
Highlandtown’s still-growing Hispanic population helped the neighborhood buck Baltimore’s overall population decline, gaining about 250 residents over the past decade, for a total of about 2,900.
During the same period, the median household income rose almost 70% to just shy of $100,000, according to the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance. That income growth is almost twice as fast as the city as a whole, but slower than neighboring Canton and Greektown-Bayview. Meanwhile, the share of Highlandtown housing that’s owner-occupied declined slightly to just below six in 10 units, BNIA data shows.
Highlandtown Community Association President Brian Sweeney describes the challenge as ensuring Highlandtown can balance the investment and attention it’s receiving with protecting residents, particularly artists and immigrants, from being priced out.
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Even as it engages current residents, Creative Alliance sees the new center as an anchor for revitalization, something it’s already credited with through its $4.5 million renovation of the shuttered Patterson movie theater two decades ago.
“One is just an investment of a big important property in the neighborhood,” Sweeney said, “two was that the programming brought people in throughout the area, and three, those same people would be inclined to buy a home or patronize our restaurants.”
Coming out of the coronavirus pandemic that separated artists and their audiences, the latest transformation brims with symbolic value, too.
Before the Creativity Center officially opened, Smit-Peters, the Main Street manager, was moved by its presence during a trick-or-treat event on Halloween night.
“It’s not often that you tear up looking at a building,” she said. As the sun set and kids in costumes ran around getting candy, she turned and looked across the street.
Through the floor-to-ceiling windows into the Creativity Center’s second-floor dance studio, she watched the Artesanas, a group of Latin American women who honor their heritage by teaching their traditions, practicing in a space that was still being imagined 15 months earlier.
“You look up, and you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh. This is what we were dreaming of, this is a magical moment, what we all envisioned for Highlandtown,’” Smit-Peters said.