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Blight Star

Sarah Doherty transforms abandoned urban spaces with creative installations

Sarah Doherty's "Rat Fence," behind 2218 N. Calvert St.

By Alex Ebstein | Posted 11/18/2009

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In the stretch of alleyway behind the 2000%u20132300 blocks of North Calvert Street, a transformation has taken place. Almost entirely hidden from view between two busy streets, the backyards and exteriors of vacant properties in the Old Goucher neighborhood have been reborn through Sarah Doherty's Axis Alley project. Once a neighborhood eyesore, the small alley running parallel to Hargrove became a source of inspiration for Doherty, a MICA sculpture professor, and eventually a call to action, once she invited local artists and community members to reclaim these abandoned spaces.

Previously host to a lone plywood sign advertising new housing projects, the empty lot on Calvert between 21st and 22nd streets is the most publicly visible piece of the Axis Alley makeover. The adjacent walls of properties to either side of the lot have been decorated with murals that lead into the alley, which extends behind the rowhouses. Walking through the narrow space, frightening and dilapidated structures have been given a new charm. A house whose rear exterior wall has gaping holes, revealing the decrepit state of the inside, now has flashes of gold rimming the cavity and a large brick mandala in the yard. In neighboring yards, various sculptural and two-dimensional installations brighten boarded-up properties. Three pieces by Emily C-D (an erstwhile City Paper contributing illustrator) and Jessie Unterhalter of the TwoCan Collective brighten the gate and walls of a house in the 2100 block, and Gary Kachadourian has wheat pasted weeds and wild flowers in another lot. The entire installation is slated to run until next spring.

When Doherty moved into this neighborhood two years ago, she saw everybody living with/managing to ignore the dangerous, unsanitary conditions of their alleyways. While the larger alley, Hargrove, had its fair share of illegal dumping, the smaller alley, where the site-specific project took place, was disturbing. "[It was] truly a no-mans-land of trash, rats (dead and alive), needles, condoms, and decaying structures filled inside and out with illegal trash dumping," Doherty writes in an e-mail. Alarmed by the apparent apathy and lack of responsibility for these spaces, she began incorporating the alley into her class curricula, encouraging students to develop site-specific or site-inspired works. The more time she spent in the alley and worked with her students, the more the community took notice and interest.

As she made plans for a larger-scale clean-up and art-installation project, Doherty gave talks at the Windup Space and posted a call for site-specific proposals online. "[The talks] really helped expand the presence of the project" she says. It was "a way to address a larger number of residents."

In September, she received proposals from local artists, architects, and even dancers interested in working together to clean and find a better use for the vacant spaces. Choosing from among the proposals, Doherty contacted the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, which owns most of these vacant properties. Its officials were adamant that she have an insurance policy for the project, protecting the participants working in the hazardous environment. Due to the neighborhood and conditions of the project, many of the brokers Doherty talked to were unwilling to help her.

"It seemed at one point to be the deal breaker, in which the project could not go forward" she says, but through tireless searching, she eventually found a broker who was sympathetic to the project and helped find an underwriter.

In an approximately two-week period, Doherty and some volunteers cleared the alley of trash. Despite a number of 311 calls, Doherty found the most effective way to clear the alley was with her own two hands, and by hiring some of the neighborhood's transient members. The project came up against further obstacles when the police twice mistook the clean-up effort as an illegal dumping operation. Each participating artist also did his or her part to clear the properties for proposed pieces. By Oct. 18, all the pieces were finished and open to the neighborhood and greater public.

Since the project's early October initiation, Doherty says she has seen improvements to her community. "In the months I worked on Axis Alley, many residents expressed that they largely had no awareness or relationship to the backs of their properties other than to take out trash, and that [the project] has made them more connected and aware," she says. She has also noticed the alley has stayed consistently cleaner, with fewer needles and condoms on the ground. With the safer, cleaner conditions, the neighborhood's children are also using the alley to play in and ride their bikes--"something that was not possible a year ago," Doherty notes. Although the scale of the project may be considered small, in this neighborhood, it is a grand gesture.

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