Art makes a start

The Baltimore Sun

When sculptor Stewart Watson moved into a former venetian blind factory near Penn Station, she embraced a more bohemian existence by helping convert the 100-year-old building into artists' lofts. But reality still had a way of seeping in - specifically, dark viscous sludge bleeding through the ceiling.

"Omigod, what's that?" she gasped on a recent tour. "It looks like roofing tar," she said as she raced up the stairs. On the floor above, Watson found a 10-gallon drum overturned amid ceiling-high piles of industrial junk - one of many headaches the new occupants inherited from the building's previous owner.

"This is what the responsibility of ownership is about, as opposed to the fun part," said Watson, one of six artist-owners who pooled their resources 3 1/2 years ago to buy the building. "This is the part that can make you older than your years."

Yet Watson, at 39, is very much part of the new wave of youthful artist-entrepreneurs slowly but visibly transforming the once-neglected area around Pennsylvania Station between Mount Royal and North avenues.

They have taken over long-vacant factory buildings and turned them into elegant studio and living spaces, rehabbed boarded-up rowhouses in a troubled city neighborhood and started new businesses in a community where commerce has languished for decades.

For all their efforts, however, enormous challenges remain, including the widespread perception of the area as unsafe and reluctance among property owners and commercial developers to bet on the neighborhood with significant infusions of capital.

Still, in the past few months the roughly 100-acre area designated as the Station North Arts & Entertainment District in 2002 has seen a surge in new galleries, restaurants, performance spaces and residential housing.

The burst of activity has the potential to turn the faltering business strip along Charles Street north of the station and the distressed residential blocks just west of Greenmount Avenue into lively new urban destinations.

The change is being driven largely by the sweat equity of young artists in their 20s and 30s who, like Watson, are seeking cheap studio space, rather than by developers with deep pockets or by city officials.

"Things are moving along very well even though there's been very little public money," says Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership. Encompassing the Charles North and Greenmount West neighborhoods, he says, progress in the arts district has been fueled by what he calls "microdevelopment," in contrast to the large-scale, publicly funded development projects on the city's west side.

"In the past few years, a lot of new actors have moved in, including the Load of Fun studios, the Maryland Institute College of Art, the roycrosse gallery, the Station North Arts Cafe, Sophie's Crepes, the Metro Gallery and the Station North Townhomes, where three-quarters of the units are already sold," Fowler says.

But some residents of Greenmount West, where the median income is less than $20,000 a year, fear they'll be priced out of homes they've occupied for decades if affluent professionals decide to follow artists into the area - as has happened in such cities as New York and Washington.

"The original response to the city's request for proposals was for an arts and entertainment district that would support children, youth and families," says Eric Goods, director of the nonprofit Greenmount Community Development Corp., which sponsors neighborhood improvement projects. "It was never intended as a tool for displacement and gentrification."

The irony is that gentrification would displace the urban-pioneering young artists who are transforming the area as well as the neighborhood people referred to as legacy residents who've lived there for years. Neither can afford the market rates charged by commercial developers.

Units at the Station North Townhouses, a luxury residential complex in the 1700 block of N. Calvert St. that opened in May, start at $300,000. Similar market-driven redevelopment projects are in the pipeline, spurred by the area's proximity to Penn Station and the easy commute to Washington.

For the moment, however, the district's artists - Fowler estimates they number about 400 - and businesspeople are exhilarated by the prospects opened up by the recent uptick in arts-related activities, which have brought new visibility - and vitality - to the scene.

"All of sudden, it seems like a whole lot of things are happening," says Sarah Williams, whose Metro Gallery opened in June in the 1700 block of N. Charles St.

"I've had so many people say to me, 'Oh, I used to live here five years ago, but then I moved out,'" Williams said. "Now people are staying and a lot of people who moved out are coming back."

Williams, a 26-year-old University of Maryland Baltimore County graduate with a degree in psychology, is typical of the young arts entrepreneurs who are making things happen. She has already exhibited works by more than two dozen local artists in her gallery, as well as played host to various film screenings, concerts, benefits and other events.

"It's a very grass-roots thing," says David Bielenberg, director of Station North Arts & Entertainment Inc., which promotes the district. "The younger generation is spreading the news by word of mouth and getting more people involved. They're the ones who are bringing in their peers."

At Watson's converted factory on East Oliver Street, for example, about 20 artists from outside the neighborhood have rented space in the 66,000-square-foot building in addition to the six artist-owners. Fifteen volunteers man Area 405, the building's gallery named after the building's street address, 6,000 square feet where Watson and her partners put on four big exhibitions a year of work by artists who interest them.

Watson says she's quite comfortable in the neighborhood despite the perception of it as unsafe.

"I'm not afraid of my neighborhood," she says. "I know my neighbors, I know who's supposed to be here and who's not. If you treat everybody with respect, you generally get it back. I'm no more afraid here than I would be anywhere else."

The Baltimore Police Department had reports of several property crimes within a quarter-mile of Watson's building over the past three months - mostly petty thefts from vehicles - but no shootings, robberies or other violent crimes.

"We actually have very little crime in this neighborhood because the people who live here have been here a long time and they look out for one another," says Pat Williams, president of the New Greenmount West Community Association. "It's not nearly as bad as people think."

Dale Dusman, pastor of St. Mark's Church and the president of the Charles North Community Association, agrees that the area has gotten a bad rap.

"We're dealing with two neighborhoods that people have a lot of negative feelings about," Dusman says. "I don't know how we undo that. I've had pastor friends who say, 'Oh, it must be awful,' and I have to say, 'No, it's wonderful!' Or people call up and ask if it's OK to come to church. When the reality is that things are much better now than they were five years ago."

As evidence of progress, Dusman points to the closing of some nightclubs and other businesses that created nuisances, and their replacement by youth-oriented venues such as the Station North Flea Market and the Velocipede do-it-yourself bike repair shop. But he acknowledges that change hasn't come as quickly as some hoped.

"When the arts district was created, people thought money was going to fall out of the sky like manna from heaven," he says. "But we've sort of been a forgotten community for a long time, and it takes a while for investors to realize that this is a great place to be."

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

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