Revitalizing Baltimore’s Station North with art and design

These stories are brought to you by a partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the NEA’s Our Town program.

How can a distressed urban area capitalize on its creative artists, organizations, and institutions to create a vibrant destination for residents and visitors alike?

A coalition of four local nonprofit arts organizations joined together to bolster artistic programming in an area of Baltimore long considered blighted.

Working in what has been designated by the State of Maryland as the Station North Arts and Entertainment District (SNAED), the group set out to improve the quality of life by implementing public art installations and programs in different indoor and outdoor sites, and help the community capitalize on the creative artists, organizations, and institutions that call the Station North area home.

SNAED is a district in central Baltimore, just north of the city’s well-traveled Penn Station. Though it is near a major transportation hub and at the geographic center of a city of over 600,000, it has long been subjected to high vacancy rates, with abandoned buildings and empty lots dotting the district.

After the construction of the Jones Fall Expressway, the area became even more isolated from the rest of the city. The Station North area is composed of fragments of other neighborhoods with well-established identities: Greenmount West, Charles North and Barclay neighborhoods.

So, in 2002, with an eye toward creating an identifiable arts district, Maryland formally designated the district as SNAED. Over the last several years, it has become a cultural center, home to 14 arts and entertainment venues, and several informal DIY venues that now animate the area.

Long burdened by a sluggish local economy and devastated by the 1968 riots, SNAED has had its share of setbacks. Today it is an area made up of several parallel but often disparate communities: artists, legacy residents, Koreans (the area was supposed to be developed as a “Korea Town” many years ago), commuters who live in Station North and travel to DC every day, people who travel into the area for the many social services within a few blocks of the train station, and students associated with Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) or the University of Baltimore.

Even though Penn Station brings in high volumes of traffic to the area, these visitors tend to be temporary passersby on the way to another destination. Many residents are low income and there is a high degree of variability in terms of their civic participation. This diversity has led to varying, and at times competing, visions for how the neighborhood should develop.

The residents themselves are approximately 69% African-American, 25% White, and 6% Asian.

The nonprofit coalition knew that the community faced significant social and economic challenges, and that its residents were in need of educational opportunities and technical support services. Also, SNAED residents and business owners felt a strong desire to refashion the area with a more uplifting identity.

Residents knew that SNAED could benefit from enhanced connections with other parts of Baltimore, and more economic and cultural energy could be focused on the district itself. As a way to activate empty spaces and lots, and in an effort to get more eyes on the street, the coalition began thinking of way to create a mix of additional tenants, ongoing public programs, and short-term events.

As Rebecca Chan, Director of Programs at SNAED, saw it, the project had the capacity “to make Station North a truly vibrant arts destination for all.” The SNAED-based arts organizations that banded together to develop a vision for the community saw an opportunity to use art programs as a way to address many of the local challenges.

One goal was to capture a large, long-overlooked audience: commuters using the nearby transit hubs who have time to spend in the district, but who may have otherwise not chosen to leave the station. “The goal is to get all the people who often pass through Station North on their way to have a reason to stop here after work on Friday, “ said Ben Stone, Executive Director of SNAED. Organizers hoped programs, performances, and events—both indoors and outdoors—would entice these travelers to spend time in the district.

The program directors had a second goal of engaging the district’s DIY and emerging artists, and wanted to include them in programming. A third goal was to reach out to non-artists—but long-time residents of the area—who might be attracted to the free programs and diversity of events.

In addition to the core partners, the group worked closely with the public sector (Baltimore City Mayor’s Office and Baltimore Housing), non-profit organizations (Baltimore Heritage, National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Midtown Development Corporation), other art organizations (Baltimore Museum of Art, Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, and Maryland State Arts Council), and more than 15 private businesses to carry out grant-funded programs.

From the very beginning, partnership was at the core of SNAED’s proposal: Station North Arts & Entertainment, Inc. (SNAE), Central Baltimore Partnership (CBP), MICA, and D center developed a close collaboration. Though they shared aspirations, each organization had a defined role. SNAE acted as the primary administrative and programming partner, CBP led community outreach and liaising with long term planning efforts, MICA served as the fiscal agent, and D Center assisted in programming.

To make their work as efficient as possible, the team assembled an Our Town Steering Committee with the goal of maximizing impact during the grant period. To bring their vision of transformed urban spaces to life, they partnered with a local artist Gaia to curate a roster of international renowned street artists, who produced murals and installations on walls throughout SNAED.

The organizers developed a four-pronged approach, proposing diverse programs as a way to generate different community outcomes and to broaden audience appeal:

1) They inaugurated the “National Symposium on Arts/Cultural/Entertainment Districts” (NSACED), a knowledge-building conference intended to draw scholars, urban planners, artists, and community development practitioners from across the country to discuss best practices and elevate the national discourse on cultural districts.

2) They also launched “Open Walls Baltimore,” a street art project that mounted 24 works of public art, each aimed at enlivening vacant and underutilized spaces, and bringing attention to the neighborhood as a creative community in which to live, work, and play. Though the painting resulted in material improvements to the community, they were also part of a public process that allowed artists and community members to interact with each other, instigating a discussion about the role of art in the public realm.

3) As a way to complement these other efforts, the team developed a “Final Friday” program, producing a regularly held public art event on the last Friday of each month. This built on an already popular Second Saturday program, but, in its Friday iteration, organizers were able to include a large potential audience of end-of-week commuters passing through the area’s busy transportation network.

4) The team also created “Think Big,” an award program targeted at the DIY and emerging artist community within Station North. Think Big was intended to reward artists doing programs, performances and other socially engaged projects on a shoe string budget with small awards to support their efforts, and with the stipulation that these future projects take place in the District.

The team implemented each of its proposed programs and was able to meet many of their original goals.

Station North partnered with both the New Greenmount West Community Association and the Charles North Community Association to review potential mural sites, create outdoor public events, and organize tours of the District. Station North also attended community association meetings for both organizations in order to stay updated on community activities, goals, issues etc.

The National Symposium on Arts/Cultural/Entertainment Districts drew 22 speakers from 13 states, each presenting different approaches to designing, implementing and financing district-wide arts programs. The proceeding attracted 150 attendees, two-thirds of whom traveled from outside the Baltimore area.

29 different artists participated in the Open Walls Baltimore program, producing 23 separate murals throughout the SNAED area.

The Final Friday program featured 190 artists spread across 11 different venues, while the Think Big award granted $44,600 to different projects that involved 160 different local artists.

As a way to gauge the local response, SNAED also conducted a community-wide survey, finding that a majority of local residents and business owners felt that the programs had positively changed their feelings about the neighborhood. The average rating for Open Walls Baltimore was 4 out of 5.

What caught the organizers by surprise was the amount of interest that their efforts created. The Final Friday program surged from an initial participant pool of 100 to 1000 attending monthly, and the 160 local artists who were part of the Think Big award pool ended up producing 29 separate projects at 20 different locations across SNAED.

The response to Open Walls Baltimore was far more enthusiastic than they could have anticipated. This response includes both the degree of local participation and mentions in major national media outlets, including The New York Times, Washington Post, and the Huffington Post. Many of the programs were covered favorably by local and regional press, including a designation of SNAED as a “must-see” in Baltimore.

In the end, the project expanded beyond the coalition’s original vision and grew to include many others. Several arts organizations and galleries have moved into the area, while others have expressed intent to do the same.

For the finale of Open Walls Baltimore, which took place in a vacant lot in a residential area, Chan reported that over 1,000 people from the neighborhood and from across the Baltimore/DC area attended, which, as she said, “was one of the most diverse and active events we have ever had.”

Inspired by the work in Baltimore? Share what’s special about your neighborhoods with the Neighborhood Postcard Project or create positive community spaces with the [freespace], available on Creative Exchange’s Toolkits page!