For about 90 minutes on Wednesday afternoon I had one of those typical Baltimore experiences that occur at the intersection of optimism and pessimism. I’ve been to that place many times over the years — impressed by the new, comforted by the familiar, supercharged with hope one minute, depressed by teddy bears tied to lamp posts the next.
If you get around the city enough, you know the feeling.
I was on the west side with Kim Lane, the high-energy executive director of Pigtown Main Street. She came into the job a couple of years ago, returning to the neighborhood where she once served as director of the local planning council. She knows the territory and knows its people.
We walked the long blocks of Washington Boulevard, from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to Ostend Street. That’s three blocks of overwhelming followed by two blocks of underwhelming, and that’s how it goes in some parts of Baltimore; you find a stable area with businesses and homeowners just a block away from one with rentals and vacants, drug deals and shootings.
Kim Lane is not satisfied with that. The magic has been working in the 700, 800 and 900 blocks of Washington Boulevard for some years now — plenty of retail with improved storefronts, new and expanded businesses that survived the pandemic, racial and ethnic diversity — but the Pigtown resurgence can’t stop there. It needs to move west a few more blocks, all the way to Carroll Park. That’s a tall order.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s start back in the 700 block, and take a right down Barre Street.
“We had 12 new businesses open in eight months [in 2019],” Lane says. She points to some of the evidence — Friends Grille, a Formstone-covered bar at Barre and Carroll Streets; Scrap B-More, a “creative reuse center” that collects and sells discarded art and craft material; Official Haute Mess (OHM), a women’s boutique that recently relocated into a larger, smartly designed space.
Lane and I stroll around the corner and stop in front of Beaters 2 Grails Sneaker Laundry Mat, where people emotionally bonded to Air Jordans can have their prized sneakers cleaned and reconditioned.
Suddenly Dominic Carter appears on the sidewalk. Lane introduces us. Carter has three businesses in Pigtown, the Ripp’d Canvas tattoo shop, the Chopping Block Barbershop and a line of printed streetwear called Canvas Cartel.
When I note that the excellent Breaking Bread restaurant had relocated to Mount Vernon, Lane takes me to Culinary Architecture’s new market space. Caterer Sylva Lin recently expanded from a catering kitchen into a grander setting filled with all kinds of enticing foods and groceries for sale.
That makes me wonder how Pigtown shop owners managed to survive the pandemic and, in some cases, even grow their businesses. Answer: They improvised, and the government helped.
Pigtown Main Street got a grant from the Hogan administration’s Maryland Strong economic recovery fund. It was $250,000 divided among 32 businesses to help them through the crisis. “It was impactful,” Lane says.
There’s a lot more to tell — more than I can cover today — about the central part of Pigtown: $260,000 in state and city grants went for facade improvements in the 700 and 800 blocks of Washington Boulevard; Miss Maryland Crab just moved into 813 and hopes to open for carryout service in July; the local branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library is about to be redeveloped through a public-private partnership; Malik Mehboob just opened a cigar shop; in the 900 block, Milk & Honey Market occupies a cool space next to the old public bathhouse-turned-apartments. Then there’s Sparc, the women’s health clinic, Suspended Brewing Co. and, across the street, Mobtown Ballroom endures, with the adjoining alley blocked off for outdoor gatherings under strings of lights. Down at the corner stands the brand new Groundwork Kitchen, a culinary training center and restaurant developed by the Paul’s Place nonprofit.
So, yeah, a lot going on.
A couple of long blocks to the west is Bob’s Bar, a landmark Pigtown establishment celebrating 50 years this month at the corner of Ostend Street and Washington Boulevard. Owner Dave Carre, son of the founder, the late Bob Carre, recently had the place renovated, which shows commitment.
There’s no getting around it, that’s the rougher part of Pigtown. There have been shootings. It’s where you see teddy bears and shriveled balloons, remnants of sidewalk memorials to victims. The drug addiction, violence, poverty, some vacant houses, negligent landlords — it’s all there.
Kim Lane and Main Street are working on it, a step at a time — collaborating with other organizations to increase homeownership in the 1100 block, planting 180 trees with the Baltimore Tree Trust, getting funds for traffic calming and street art. The artist Rodney Carroll’s nine-foot bronze pig, part of a 36-foot weather vane sculpture, will soon hover over the entrance to Carroll Park.
That’s not lipstick on a pig. That’s part of everything that needs to be done. You have to build pride in a community, keep the streets clean, get people and businesses the help they need, help renters become homeowners, keep on the owners of commercial space about renting their properties, get small developers interested investment opportunities, work with the police, work with neighbors, organize block captains, organize events, celebrate the enduring corner bar — that’s the hard sweat of fixing the city, one block at a time.