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Jacques Kelly: Kirk Avenue's Compound, an artists' commune in need of some work

The utilitarian Kirk Avenue building calls little attention to itself. Located in East Baltimore's Midway neighborhood, it sits unobtrusively between Green Mount Cemetery and a Mass Transit Administration bus garage.

The immediate area is an urban valley where Jenkins Run once flowed but is now buried in a culvert. In the 19th Century, laborers at a tannery and glue works earned a day's wage around here.

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But don't be fooled. A busy collective of industrious artists thrives inside, within a domain they have created in the former fork lift and industrial scales repair shop. The result of their amazing work has vexed city planning and zoning officials. What to do with a living space that defies the conventional norms of four walls, roof, kitchen and baths?

Those who live within what they have named The Compound are its articulate defenders, and are now at work to get legal permissions and safety upgrades in place — and maybe a new roof too.

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In 2010, Nicholas Wisniewski, a Maryland Institute College of Art painting graduate, paid $230,000 for the old fork lift building. The other co-founder was Marlon Ziello, who also studied painting at MICA. They met as students nearly 15 years ago.

"We had a lot of help from family and friends," Wisniewski said. "No bank would give us a mortgage for this place. We chose Midway because it was a symbolic center of the city. "

As the one-year anniversary of the Bell Foundry's abrupt shuttering passes, Baltimore's much-celebrated DIY music and arts scene has receded to the shadows as it awaits Mayor Catherine Pugh's recommendations for best practices.

He said he and his fellow artists moved into the place, describing this ad-hoc adventure as "essentially squatting in our own building." He and his friends improvised on plumbing.

"After a while," he said, "we were sick of taking showers in an old tub, an old tub we found discarded in an alley."

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But artists are creative and resourceful — and possess a vision that other creature-comfort demanding folk lack.

Wisniewski wanted a place where he and his artist associates could live and work, under one roof. He brought his extensive collection of woodworking equipment — he has a thriving wholesale frame-making business — as well as a mattress and some basic furniture.

Over the past eight years, The Compound has grown into its own arts republic, a place for photographers, writers, musicians (there are several recording studios), cabinetmakers and a working, well-stocked library, the Alternative Press Center. Young people from the Midway community also work in The Compound at its mini-farm and in the woodshop.

When Wisniewski wanted to add a second story for one of the music studios, he bartered for some old beams from a sock factory a few blocks away near Greenmount Avenue.

"We worked together here. It was like a barn raising," he said.

After years of living out of sight — "We have no website. We live in an intentional blackout," he said — city inspectors made a visit. There was no sprinkler system. And city zoning laws do not permit a dozen unrelated persons to reside within a complex of buildings.

Officials in Baltimore on Monday condemned and shuttered the Bell Foundry, a large building used as studio and recording space by local artists in Station North, after receiving a complaint about the conditions there and finding safety violations.

They were not evicted but the building was written up. To address the violations, the group formed a nonprofit, called The Compound, to carry out the required fixes. Working with Baltimore Arts Realty Corp.'s Amy Bonitz, they developed a $1.56 million wish list, but they still needed funding. The state of Maryland awarded The Compound a $200,000 Baltimore Regional Neighborhood Initiative grant. A state bond bill included a $250,000 allocation for it.

The scope of work includes demolition of two vacant adjacent rowhouses, stabilization of four rowhouses, a new water line and sprinkler system, and combining the electrical service into one service. There are also fire exit improvements and needed roof repairs.

The Compound members remain resilient and want to protect their creation.

"Our method has been to do The Compound with sweat equity," Wisniewski said. "The code compliance issue has derailed us a bit, but we'll be better in the long run for addressing these issues — and remain the kind of place we want to be."

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