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Saving Space

Artists Re-Imagine Baltimore’s Boarded Up, Abandoned, And Otherwise Neglected Properties

Tim Hill
AGAINST THE WALL: A mural proposal by Can Collective artists Katey Truhn, Jessie Unterhalter, and Emily C-D
Detail of Montegut and Quick's golf course proposal. View a pdf version of the entire proposal HERE.

By Tim Hill | Posted 7/19/2006

The Dilapidated Reanimated Expo

At Artscape’s Pavilion 1 through July 23.

If artists Adam Montegut and Elizabeth Quick had their way, people would be lining up to chip golf balls behind the South Baltimore Wal-Mart. Or, if fishing’s their thing, they could sit on docks and spin out lines into the murky waters of the Middle Branch.

Their proposal, “Topographic Tactics,” envisions a park running from Ferry Bar Park—where the annual Intertribal Powwow congregates—along the waterfront behind the megastore and its co-behemoth, Sam’s Club. It’s a clever and humorous treatment for a piece of land adjoining the tiny park—property, like thousands of other parcels around the city, that sits abandoned or vacant.

This proposal and a dozen other ideas displayed at Artscape’s Dilapidated Reanimated Expo envisions ways to reuse the city’s plethora of neglected property. Even if ideas aren’t acted upon—Montegut said he and collaborator Elizabeth Quick accept that a golf course behind a Wal-Mart is far-fetched—such outlandish proposals would still be successful as winking social commentary.

“One of the biggest resources we have is so much empty space,” says Andy Cook, a member of the artists’ cooperative that runs the Current Gallery and curates this show. “I thought this was a good model of how the city could facilitate more culture.”

Current published a list of vacant lots and empty houses on its web site and called for artists, architects, social activists, and other visionaries to reconfigure properties, combining them with art or commentary, any way they saw fit.

The proposals run the gamut from whimsical to practical to subversive. Baltimore artist Eric Johnston imagined an empty four-story house on West Franklin Street “grossly endowed” with solar thermal and photovoltaic panels that could serve as a community power station. Johnston is no engineer, and judging from the fantastic arrangement of panels hanging from every exterior surface, it’s doubtful an old rowhouse’s facade would withstand the added weight. Still, the idea resonates: Who’s to say a micro-power plant wouldn’t be a feasible way to provide electricity for nearby homes?

Artists Katey Truhn, Jessie Unterhalter, and Emily C-D, otherwise known as the Can Collective, assembled a 3-D mural on the outside of the exhibit’s makeshift hall near the Lyric Opera House. They arranged an organic, even floral, bas-relief from junk they’ve collected from abandoned lots around the city, painting between objects with swaths of deep earthy reds and greens. They propose to do the same with a property in Midtown-Edmondson, working with neighborhood kids and community input.

There’s an investigation into the shortcuts pedestrians use to cut across vacant lots. Another artist proposes ad hoc art happenings and events at houses that have been boarded up and posted with no trespassing signs. Ashley Milburn suggests installing light boxes mounted with photographs behind the windows of vacant houses to remind passers-by that while buildings may lay in stillness, the spirits of families who once inhabited them live on.

City housing officials estimate there are 30,000 unused properties in the city, 15,000 of which are vacant houses. Several public-private endeavors, such as Project SCOPE, the mayor’s Project 5000, and the Baltimore Development Corp.’s efforts to find takers for numerous isolated lots and houses, have sought ways to get neglected properties not suitable for larger-scale development back on the tax rolls.

Artists are often on the forefront of redevelopment. Many cities, Baltimore included, have created art districts to entice creative types to move to dilapidated neighborhoods. The Station North Arts and Entertainment District project in midtown is the latest incarnation of this strategy.

Even the Dilapidated Reanimated exhibit, with its sometimes fanciful and impractical proposals, suggests a reciprocity between art and redevelopment. The Baltimore Development Corp. provided the list of available properties, and in 2005 the quasi-public agency helped get the Current Gallery and cooperative under way by granting it use of an old retail space at 30 S. Calvert St. The building, which houses a gallery on the first floor and studio spaces on two floors above, is scheduled for demolition. Until the implosives arrive one day—no one is certain when—the gallery and co-op inhabit the space.

The artists themselves are not unaware of the irony. “Artists are used as the cultural soldier, the buffer tools,” quipped co-op member Michael Benevento. “We’re providing something for the BDC, but in return we’re getting space to occupy.”

But when the likelihood of a property’s redevelopment is remote, artists and activists still bridge the gap. Vacant and abandoned spaces are no good for communities, everyone agrees.

“Nobody’s using them as they are now,” says Hans Petrich, another member of the co-op. “And they’re not going to be used for probably 10 years until they get a big developer in. Why not use those spaces for other purposes?”

Throughout the city, neighborhood activists have been doing just that. Notice the hundreds of community gardens, picnic spaces, homegrown art installations, and other creative reuses of dead space. Many of those projects were assisted by the Neighborhood Design Center, a 38-year-old alliance of social activists, architects, and designers. The Hollins Market-based center, which has been working with neighborhoods to rehabilitate hundreds of vacant and abandoned properties, contributed samples of its work to Dilapidated Reanimated as examples of success stories.

“We thought it was a great idea,” says Neighborhood Design Center executive director Mark Cameron. “There’s so many things that can be done to spark interest. I think [the exhibit] is a way to get some exposure about the issue.”

Cameron says it’s possible a city can balance business, community, and artists’ interests in reclaiming vacant and abandoned spaces. “There’s not one solution for vacant land,” he says. “Things can be temporary or permanent.” He rolls off a list: Houses, gardens, gathering spots, art, or just a cleaned-up vacant lot can improve a street. “Art can be a great way of keeping a neighborhood in a holding pattern.”

That pluralism, a kind of laissez-faire embrace of doing whatever works—the Current’s last exhibit was curated by an organization called Creative Capitalism, after all—imbues the exhibit. It’s expressed in the wild variety of reuse ideas: junk art, spatial pattern investigation, police-camera protest, spiritual monument to families, civilly disobedient reoccupation . . . and then there’s the golf course.

Montegut and Quick’s post-industrial chipping green is wry commentary about the amount of land golf courses and supermarket parking lots consume, and it subtly mocks the social prestige of the gentleman’s game. But played right, it could also be a profitable venture. And with that would come compromise.

“What would happen to the Powwow?” Cook asks, laughing.

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