For the past 36 years, Stan Edmister has been one of Baltimore's more quietly influential citizens. From his home base, a rambling frame house in the woods near the Jones Falls Expressway, the 65-year-old artist has sought to realize his belief that community togetherness, a creative vision and old-fashioned elbow grease are the keys to bettering and beautifying the environment.
From the mushrooms he grew around his Woodberry Forest home and sold in a thriving sandwich business at farmer's markets, to the I-83 "Gateway of Color" project that saw 16 bridges across the Jones Falls Expressway repainted, Edmister inspired neighbors, challenged officials and generally strived, sometimes successfully, to prove that grassroots efforts are a better path to success than top-down government schemes.
The Howard Street Bridge, the last installment in the Gateway of Color, is all but finished, ending a 15-year mission that was both satisfying and frustrating. The Sun caught up with Edmister last week as he completed his latest major project: an emotional move from Baltimore to a rural community near Warrenton, Va.
After nearly four decades in Baltimore, why are you uprooting?
I've loved Baltimore for a long time, but for people like me, who believe in sustainable projects, it has become a very frustrating place. I've learned that anything a bureaucracy comes up with is going to be fraught with graft, incompetence and corruption. There's always a way, given imagination and perseverance, to manage existing resources better. But in Baltimore, there's more interest in maintaining the status quo.
You dreamed up the I-83 bridges project 15 years ago; what was your intent?
The idea was to celebrate bridges as structures, bring a little life to the experience of commuting up and down the road, and to do so at no additional cost to the public [than that of a regular paint job]. I also wanted a clear way of demonstrating to [the] engineers, bureaucrats and politicians that it's not necessary to spend extra money to get an excellent job done.
Are you happy with the result?
All the bridges were funded to be finished in a two-year span. From [former Mayor Kurt] Schmoke on down, decisions were made to put the city's matching funds someplace else. All the bridges did eventually get painted ... but all have been compromised or dumbed down to some degree.
In the end, I think the concept is still there. If you drive I-83 from downtown, all the way up to Cold Spring Lane, you can see a change. I think it has provided a noticeable, conspicuous good. It's not exactly what was planned, but I'm happy with it.
The other big part of your life here has been your mushroom business. How did that get started?
That has been a hobby of mine since I was a kid. When I moved to the Woodberry Forest, I saw that mushrooms grew naturally in the wild. I felt this was a wonderful opportunity to show that urban forests have economic value. So I developed a little farmer's market business. I provided mushrooms grilled in a pita with condiments to show people that they were delicious and a great resource. ... The business got so big it was almost out of control, but it showed two important things: one, that urban forests have economic benefit, and two, that public service and private benefit work together.
Why, as a conservationist, are you so passionate about urban forests?
They're beautiful and they can be self-sustaining. [Some neighbors and I] created a master plan for the Woodberry Forest - a forest-products business plan. It shows how mushrooms and berries and edible forest trees and forest-tree byproducts, like wood chips and ground leaves, can collectively be turned into a small business that would help pay for the management and care of the forest.
Where does the plan stand now?
We've received several national, state and local grants to implement our program. [We were] assured that our master plan would be ratified by the planning commission by October. Well, December's damn near over with, and we haven't heard a thing. ... [I think] the city doesn't want to surrender any control over how money will be spent. It wants to tax people and put the tax money toward programs that are more politically [advantageous]. ... I don't believe in government taking care of people. I believe in people, families, neighborhoods and communities taking care of their own needs.
Though you're leaving Baltimore, do you see hope for the city?
I am always hopeful. And I've done projects in many other cities, and you have similar problems in New York, Boston and Anchorage, Alaska. But the way things are done in Baltimore is not sustainable. It's running the city into the ground. ... Baltimore needs more transparency in its public projects. There's very little accountability, very little sense of where the money goes.
You received vocal opposition from Mayor O'Malley about your color scheme for the Howard Street bridge, a scheme that had been vetted several years back. What happened?
I saw a color go up that was not part of any of [the planned scheme], so I called the Department of Transportation and asked. They said the mayor had intervened, and this was his choice of color. We got a meeting with him, the [result of which was] that he'd host a competition on his Web site, [and] he promised to abide by the vote's outcome. Well, the voting public supported the red-based scheme. But the color that went up on the bridge was the mayor's choice. It still looks better than it did before, but this was typical of a mayor who is, in my opinion, an arrogant punk. ... If Maryland elects him governor, I guess it deserves what it's going to get.
What do you see as your legacy?
I don't think in those terms. I'm happy in my new community and already involved in several projects. I'm finding more fertile ground for optimism and creative thinking here in rural Virginia than I am in the city. I still believe that with creative thought, perseverance and patience, the design community can provide a good partnership for the way bureaucracies can work, and produce a better product that can be directly appreciated by the general public.