The corner of North and Charles promises to be full of Artscape visitors this weekend, but how many of them will realize there is a thriving and changing residential community within and behind those commercial blocks? This might be Baltimore's fastest-growing arts residential neighborhood, not just its arts presentation and performance address.
But unlike the creative stands strung out along Charles Street this weekend, the results of a lot of residential investment and hard work are not so evident. You have to walk along East Lanvale and Lafayette, Oliver and Federal streets. It also helps to know how beat-up these blocks were not so long ago to appreciate how they are faring today.
A few months back, as I was standing outside the old North Avenue Market, I glanced across North Avenue. There was fresh wood framing rising atop the roof of the former Bickford cafeteria building. This week, I met with Sergio Martinez, an architect and furniture designer, and his partner, Nat-yeli Trujillo, a Whole Foods pricing analyst, who are renovating the building. Both are transfers from Washington and have enthusiastically embraced the Charles North and Greenmount West neighborhoods.
"I love the bohemian spirit of this place," said Martinez. "In Washington, it was not the same. I had a studio, and my landlord took over my space for condos."
The wooden structure I noted that day is a whole new addition to his building, which he has named the Fat Cat Art Gallery. It must take the vision of an architect to see the promise the vacant Bickford eatery possessed. Few people would want to make over a commercial property at 5 E. North Ave. and call it home. He and Trujillo have. As I spoke to them the other night, I felt as if I were chatting with the pioneers who reclaimed Fells Point 40 years ago.
Martinez took me on a tour of the neighborhood that stretches east to Greenmount. He proudly showed off the new design high school in the former Lebow clothing factory, but he also grew highly enthusiastic about new $5,000 "Big Belly" trash and recycle cans his community has purchased with the help of a grant.
"Look at this. No trash," he said Wednesday evening as he pointed to the corner of North and Charles, an intersection not always known to be Switzerland-clean in the past.
He and Trujillo share a commitment to the environment and rescue the neighborhood's feral cats. Wanting the neighborhood to be both green and clean, they assisted in tree plantings. They promote its hidden-away garden plots, places which not too long ago had persistent trash problems associated with abandoned buildings.
Martinez retains a hope that the 50 or so remaining empty houses of Greenmount West will be renovated. He recently hosted an effort to get local artists to paint the plywood panels that fill the boarded-up windows. The result was an explosion of Baltimore creativity. Who would have thought there would be mini-murals of Rosa Ponselle and Chick Webb and haiku quotes at Greenmount and Lanvale?
And if these streets are going to come back, it's going to take someone like Martinez, who used the word "majestic" to describe the tree canopy along certain blocks just off Greenmount.
This is a diverse, developing neighborhood that sits between Mount Vernon, Barclay and Old Goucher. It seemed to be given up for nearly dead — or permanent neglect — for a long time. Then the current boomlet began, perhaps about the time the City Arts building opened, quietly, in late 2010.
"We are going to build City Arts II," said Charles Duff, the developer who is working with Homes for America and TRF Development partners. "The city just awarded an acre at 1700 Greenmount, between Lafayette and Lanvale. It's going to be a fun project, with 62 apartments, a public park and some rowhouses, too."