It sounded like a Baltimore-themed idea that made sense. To celebrate a century of screen painting, 100 new, colorful window screens would be installed along the commercial district of Highlandtown, in the very heart of the neighborhoods where this summertime tradition flourished.
Why not? Despite our dependence on air conditioners, people still open their windows in this Baltimore neighborhood — and there are in fact hundreds of window screens along Eastern Avenue. Because this remains a commercial street full of traditional small businesses, there are not so many ground-floor screens. But there are lots of screened second- and third-floor windows.
I watched this week as Amanda Smit-Peters, who is the Highlandtown Main Street manager (and a Maryland Institute College of Art graduate), worked with screen artist Monica Broere, who lives in the neighborhood. They stood on the sidewalk along Conkling Street with a pair of freshly painted screens for Cardinal Chiropractic. The screens featured cardinals perched on a backbone. Anna Pasqualucci is the artist.
The project was funded by the Baltimore Community Foundation, which offered a $7,500 grant to pay screen artists and buy paint. It also took some creative thinking from Southeast Community Development Corp. and the Painted Screen Society of Baltimore.
The screens I saw complemented the old shop fronts and added a nice dash of color. Of course, you had to look for the screens. They don't jump out like neon signs. They are not the painted screens of the 1940s variety, the charmingly antique and picturesque ones with the swans and the bungalow.
"When you go 20 feet up in the air, you have to go brighter and bolder," said Chris Ryer, director of Southeast Community Development Corp.
His headquarters, at Eastern and Highland avenues, got a color blast with a batch of screens that create a subtle pattern. The design inspiration was a quilt. The artists were a group of Spanish-speaking mothers who belong to a group called Mis Raices. They painted the screens at the old St. Elizabeth of Hungary School, where they meet.
Other screens, painted in traditional Baltimore motifs of crabs, Orioles and other local icons, adorn the Southeast loan office at Conkling and Eastern.
Ryer, who is also a city planner, said the section of Eastern Avenue from Conkling to Haven Street has made a remarkable recovery in the past few years.
"Those blocks have become a daily shopping district, a place you go for a haircut, or to a grocery or a dime store," he said.
He also brought up the variations on ethnic cuisine in Highlandtown. "We have small restaurants here. One serves chicken in the Peruvian style. We have others who serve it in the Mexican," he said.
Broere studied with artist John Oktavec, whose family is credited with inventing the art of screen painting. She also taught at nearby Patterson High School.
Broere has watched the neighborhood change. As new families arrived in Highlandtown, most knew nothing about Baltimore's whimsical screen traditions. She wanted to share her knowledge.
"As a teacher, I saw our populations changing," she said. "I saw a whole wave of Latino immigrants, but in the last six years, I saw families from Bhutan, Nepal, Eritrea, Iraq and Somalia."
I admired the screens and thought of all the immigrant waves that have settled in Highlandtown in the past century. In the middle of the new screen tour, I thought of something else: About 15 years ago, many of the businesses that are welcoming the screen painters were vacant or just hanging on.
Eastern Avenue and Conkling Street were once shabby stretchess. No longer. I saw cleaner streets and people out shopping or grabbing a lunch. It pulsed with a form of quiet Baltimore prosperity — not fancy, but working hard.