Art project uses vacant home to bring neighbors together

Filmmakers Sabrina Chin, left, and Melissa Crisco, with their film projecting on a house in the background.
Filmmakers Sabrina Chin, left, and Melissa Crisco, with their film projecting on a house in the background. (Kim Forsyth)

The hulking white duplex at 2108-2110 Mount Royal Terrace — a vacant eyesore for 20 years — is a financial and emotional drain on neighbors, who maintain a five-block stretch of historic homes that overlooks the Jones Falls Expressway and acts as the eastern border of Reservoir Hill.

But for two nights this past weekend, residents gathered on the sidewalk in front of the empty house, watching it and imagining what it would be like if someone lived there.

The occasion was an exhibit by two students at the nearby Maryland Institute College of Art, who used the 120-year-old home as a movie screen, with videos projected onto the plywood that covers the first-floor windows. The videos, of neighborhood residents performing household tasks, made it appear as if the house were lit up and bustling with activity.

"It reminds me of those murals you used to see, that kids would paint on boarded-up windows: a painting of a flower box, a cat sitting in the window," said neighbor and Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby as he and about 15 others stood in the chilly air Saturday night, sipping hot cider.

Among the neighbors, the project stirred discussion about whether the city's home-ownership programs are helping their neighborhood. The rehabilitation of buildings like this one –– the solitary vacant among well-kept gems –– should be a priority for the city, the residents said.

The 20-year-old artists, sculptor Melissa Crisco and photographer Sabrina Chin, started the project months ago and at first set their sights on a blighted block in western Reservoir Hill. But so few homes there were occupied, Crisco said, that they had difficultly finding people to videotape — let alone anyone willing to talk about how the vacant homes affected their lives.

Instead, the students focused on the huge, crumbling house on Mount Royal Terrace. They spoke to whomever they came across in the area, trying to understand how the house came to be unoccupied and how it affects the neighborhood.

"We wanted to show what it could look like … instead of just being wasted space," said Crisco, a MICA junior from Georgia.

To film local residents as they went about their daily routines, the students climbed ladders to record footage through the neighbors' windows.

"We're trying to, through art, show a different side of this issue," Crisco said. "Talking about vacant houses only gets you so far."

The house, empty since the spring of 1991, has two owners. One half of the house is owned by a company that intended to renovate but is now caught up in legal wrangling; the other half is owned by the city, according to tax records.

Although the city-owned portion of the building is for sale for $20,000, according to documents from the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, a buyer needs to be able to cover the rehabilitation of the home.

The house is being sold as part of a local program called Selling City Owned Properties Efficiently, which requires buyers to renovate and submit a certificate of occupancy within 18 months of the settlement date. The city estimates that its half would cost between $275,000 and $420,000 to rebuild, meaning that a buyer would need to be approved for at least the low end of that price range.

Neighbors were skeptical.

It's unreasonable to expect that someone who could afford a nearly $300,000 mortgage would be interested in the house, said Edwin Lane, who has owned half of the duplex next door for two decades and took part in the MICA students' video project.

Another neighbor, Bernando Hines, said the house likely wouldn't be worth much even if it were renovated — and he thinks it is unlikely to be fixed up because of the high cost of doing so.

Most of the surrounding homes are valued in the mid-$200s, according to tax documents. Hines owns the building on the other side of the ruined house. He's been there since the late 1990s and never expected the vacant house to still be empty at this date — especially considering the mid-2000s housing boom.

Kim Forsyth, who lives in the 1900 block of Mount Royal Terrace, was also filmed for the MICA project.

"A house like this is a drain on the incentive of neighbors to invest in their own neighborhood, their own homes," she said.



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