Any effort that promises to attract new residents and businesses to a historic Baltimore neighborhood could do a lot worse than make the arts a magnet for bringing people together. That's why we can't see any down side to a city proposal to create a third arts and entertainment district for Baltimore, this one on the west side of downtown. If the idea of a new cultural destination works anywhere near as well there as it has elsewhere in the city and state, the results are practically guaranteed to be an improvement over the status quo.
State economic development officials are expected to decide by June 1 whether to approve Baltimore's request to designate 117 acres of downtown as the Bromo Tower Arts and Entertainment District. Within that area, bounded roughly by Read and Lombard streets on the north and south and by Park Avenue and Paca Street on the east and west, are at least a dozen large buildings that are currently vacant and could eventually be converted into studio and living spaces for artists, as well as dozens of storefronts and shops that could house thriving new businesses. If approved, the project would be the 20th officially designated arts district in the state.
The new district would be anchored by a number of established venues that have already begun attracting attention to the area, including world-class productions of Broadway plays at the old Hippodrome Theatre, reborn in 2004 as the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center; the acclaimed Everyman repertory theater; and the Bromo Seltzer Tower, which a recent city-sponsored renovation transformed into studio spaces for visual and literary artists. The area is also home to the Current Gallery on Howard Street, which presents cutting-edge contemporary works by younger artists; the EMP Collective, a gallery and theater storefront on Redwood Street between Howard and Eutaw streets; and the H&H building at Franklin and Eutaw streets, which houses galleries and artist studios that have become a lively destination on the local arts scene. The tax breaks associated with arts district designation could help new ventures to build on the success of those existing venues.
Baltimore's two existing arts districts, one located just north of Penn Station between Greenmount Avenue and Charles Street, the other along Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown, have been largely successful in bringing new vitality to once-struggling urban neighborhoods. Not only have they proved the arts district model can work as a spur to economic and business development in distressed neighborhoods, they've also shown that it can be successful in more than one place at a time.
In the Station North district, for example, cadres of young artist-entrepreneurs contributed their sweat equity to turn vacant, aging factory buildings into elegant living lofts, studios and gallery spaces. That, in turn, encouraged an influx of new shops and restaurants catering to the creative class, which added to the momentum for change. Today, the district's western edge along Charles Street boasts a historic movie theater with a dedicated local following and a diverse range of other attractions that make it a destination for gallery patrons, club-goers and visitors to the city. It's still a work in progress, but the progress is undeniable.
In Highlandtown, the renovation of an old movie theater allowed the nonprofit Creative Alliance arts and culture center to rise in its stead and pump energy and enthusiasm into building a new identity for a historic immigrant neighborhood. The center quickly became the focus of a neighborhood renaissance that brought arts exhibitions, theater performances, literary and visual arts workshops and alternative music concerts to audiences drawn from across the region.
In both cases, the transformation of once-dreary urban tracts into nascent cultural hubs was accomplished largely without public funds or financing arranged by deep-pockets developers. People simply saw places where things seemed to be happening and decided they wanted to be part of it. The arts district designation gave them a handle to hang their aspirations on, and they pitched in and did the rest.
That's a story that's been repeated many times over throughout history, from the rebellious band of misfit painters who took refuge in Paris' disreputable Montmartre district amid the glitter of the Belle Epoque, to the Beat Generation's smoky gatherings in New York's Greenwich Village, to the postmodern hipsters who reinvented Washington's seedy U Street corridor as a cultural destination. The beauty of it is that not only can it happen in Baltimore, too, but that it can happen in different parts of the city at the same time — and people will still keep coming back for more.