As carpenters finished an elegantly crafted deck near Greenmount Avenue and Oliver Street, I had a thought:
Where is the "gritty Greenmount" described in news articles a few years ago?
In short, it has largely disappeared. Over the past year, a new, $12.3 million community artisan lab called Open Works has been taking shape in the Greenmount West neighborhood.
Its arrival — a debut is targeted for early September — will be another signal of confidence and optimism in a once-beleaguered part of the city.
Open Works is an example of a "makerspace," a concept in which numerous participants can share tools, machines and entire rooms in a communal setting. Some will pay a fee; others, such as city schools students, will not.
"We think there a lot of power in creating these hubs of community engagement," said Amy Bonitz, president of the nonprofit Baltimore Arts Realty Corp., known as BARCO, which is developing the facility from a former parking garage.
Located at 1400 Greenmount Ave., Open Works is designed to serve as a space where artisans can make products that would be impractical to create at home. Users will include small manufacturers, artisans, entrepreneurs, craftspeople and hobbyists. There'll be a sewing room, paint room and a woodworking shop.
"We are like a YMCA for makers. Instead of exercise equipment, we'll have fabrication equipment," said Will Holman, general manager of Open Works. "Like the Y, we're nonprofit. We offer classes at reasonable price points for the community."
The concept taking shape at Open Works drew some inspiration from a Somerville, Mass., venture called the Artisans Asylum, which also brings together artisans to share experience, knowledge and work space.
BARCO officials say Open Works came about because they saw a need in this part of Baltimore, which is already home to numerous artists and "makers."
There seems to be a demand: Last year BARCO unveiled its Motor House project on North Avenue, about eight blocks away from Open Works. This former auto sales building is now fully leased to arts organizations and working artists.
The corporation, founded by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, states on its website that the goal for Open Works is to be "an incubator for Baltimore's creative economy."
Another goal is to help keep Baltimore's artisans and engineering college graduates here, instead of seeing them move to other cities in search of greener pastures.
"In addition to serving the creative class, we are also committed to serving the surrounding neighborhoods and its schools," Bonitz said. "We are not about just serving millennials. We are about ladders of opportunity."
Holman said Open Works has been talking to officials from the six schools that lie within walking distance.
"For the elementary and middle schools," he said, "we have a van — Open Works Mobile — so we can take enrichment activities to those who can't come to us."
A number of buildings in this neighborhood that lost heavy industrial tenants are blossoming again in an arts district.
In the case of Open Works, the building was once the main garage for delivery trucks serving the old Railway Express Agency. It immediately abuts the Amtrak main line as it passes under Greenmount Avenue and enters the Union Tunnel adjacent to Hoffman Street.
Some of its spacious chambers — where saws and fabrication equipment will be located — overlook passing Acela, Northeast Regional and MARC trains.
The Railway Express Agency left the garage about 1960, when the neighborhood was experiencing economic woes. It became an truck paint shop and over the last decade was a thrift store operated by Rock City Church, a congregation located in Baltimore County.
Southway Builders, the contractor on the project, has worked nearly a year on Open Works and has hired subcontractors who employ workers from Baltimore's struggling neighborhoods.
Architects at Cho Benn Holback + Associates have designed a clean and inviting floor plan, making good use of the former garage's open layout and two stories.
"This is the next contribution to making Greenmount Avenue a wonderful thoroughfare," said Neil Didriksen, a BARCO director. "It's going to be a mix of interest, talent and experience."