Sign up for our newsletters   

Baltimore City Paper home.
Print Email

Feature

Sowebo Blues

What Went Wrong—and What Might Be Going Right—in Baltimore’s Would-Be Arts Neighborhood

Sam Holden
Keeping the faith: Tita Rutledge, Bill Alder, Dan Van Allen, Anthony Corradetti, Julie Corradetti, Betsey Waters
Sam Holden
The 1100 block of Hollins Street
Sam Holden
Dan Van Allen
Sam Holden
Bill Adler

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 12/23/1998

It’s a chilly November afternoon on the 1200 block of Hollins Street. Gary Letteron is poking around the tiny tree nursery he helped establish on a vacant lot tucked between a bar/package-goods store and a rowhouse. A train horn echoes in the dank, overcast air as Letteron strides among the black plastic pots holding a jumbled collection of saplings and shrubs.

“We’re just about all shut down here for the season,” the ruddy-faced 44-year-old says, examining a few of the red oaks, silver maples, bay magnolias, and ornamental cherries that make up the nursery. “I need to call and have the water turned off so we don’t burst a pipe.”

Letteron is a self-styled urban forester. Together with a band of like-minded volunteers, he plants trees along the city’s streets. But as difficult as it is to raise foliage amid the asphalt, Letteron has learned that it’s harder still to nurture a neighborhood—to keep a community fed, pruned, and protected so that it continues to grow and give shelter.

He lives just around the corner on Lombard Street, where he moved a decade ago, at about the time when this Southwest Baltimore neighborhood near the Hollins Market had picked up a new name: Sowebo.

“It was that crazy neighborhood,” Letteron says, recalling what lured him here from Charles Village. “Housing was affordable, there were interesting people and artists here, and it was nice to walk around and know your neighbors.”

Letteron, whose civic activities away from the tree lot have led some to dub him the “Mayor of Hollins Market,” still knows his neighbors, and there are still artists and interesting people around. But a lot has happened—and not happened—in the environs since he paid $15,000 for his crumbling rowhouse in 1988.

Was Sowebo being groomed to become Baltimore’s answer to Soho? Was it evolving into the next Fells Point? Could it, as some dreamed, become a racially and economically diverse neighborhood rife with creative vitality? A collection of developers, entrepreneurs, and artists tried to reshape the neighborhood. In the end, few could have desired what it is today: quiet and dark.

Walk east from the tree lot and you’ll see the market, still open for business. But Mencken’s Cultured Pearl Café, for 15 years a convivial anchor for the community—scene of poetry readings, art exhibits, beer drinking, and burrito consumption—is closed. Its famous neon sign reading eat art drink poetry has been replaced by a less-evocative proclamation: for rent. This placard—and others reading for sale and closed—now blanket the commercial district that encircles the market. These are the signs you see in the windows of a former coffee house, an erstwhile pastry bakery, and at the neighborhood bank on Baltimore Street. Stroll along the residential sections of Hollins Street and you’ll see these signs too—attached to the dormered pre-Civil War rowhouses that huddle on the east end of the street, and on the large, staid Victorians that begin to appear as you head west towards Union Square. Even H.L. Mencken’s house overlooking the square, once a museum honoring the neighborhood’s most famous son, is shuttered and dark.

“Oh, it’s not exactly how it used to be around here,” Letteron says, giving a modest—or perhaps sarcastic—summation of the area’s present fortunes.

Landis McCord, the dynamic frontman for the band the All Mighty Senators, offers a more pointed observation. McCord once lived, worked, and played in Sowebo, but he has since decamped to Charles Village. The last time he visited his old neighborhood, he says, “I could have sworn I saw a tumbleweed blowing down the street. It was sad and scary.”

 

Ask a dozen past and present Sowebo residents what happened to the art-fueled momentum that almost transformed their corner of the city into a cultural and commercial success story and you’ll get a dozen different answers. They will all probably be right. No single thing stalled the Sowebo renaissance. There were overeager developers, an undereager city government, and the tragic urban trio of crime, poverty, and racism. Into this mix, add just plain bad luck. But to a certain degree, neighborhoods are always in some form of transition, and the Hollins Market area is no exception.

If you want to see crowds here, visit the market on a Saturday—particularly early in the month, when the shoppers, many of whom are on public assistance, are flush with funds. Lines of people snake from the poultry and meat stalls, and kids scamper in the aisles. Dominic Rigatuso, 57, grew up in the neighborhood and lives across the street from the market, where he and his wife run Dominic and Panela’s Custom Salads. He also serves as president of the Hollins Market Merchants Association.

“This area was alive and the market was the hub,” he says of the neighborhood of old. “We had outdoor stalls all the way down to Schroeder Street. And Baltimore Street was a major shopping area. It was where you went if you couldn’t get to the big stores downtown.”

But the neighborhood of Rigatuso’s youth in the 1950s and early ’60s was besieged by forces that marred much of urban America: the flight to the suburbs, the demise of the industrial base, the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Vacancy and decay are not new phenomena for this neighborhood; indeed, they were the seeds from which the Sowebo arts community grew.

“When I moved to this neighborhood 15 years ago it was 80 percent vacant. It was basically all boarded up,” says artist Bill Adler, who runs a gallery on Fayette Street and has renovated a handful of area properties. “You could basically go pick any house you wanted. It was total potential.”

Adler had been living in Washington D.C., running an artists’ cooperative in that city’s Adams Morgan neighborhood. But rents were going up, and artists were feeling squeezed.

“I actually got a letter from the [Baltimore] Mayor’s Commission on Arts telling me that Baltimore was a terrific place for artists,” says Adler, who subsequently traded D.C. rents for a Baltimore mortgage.

High school teacher Jack Trimper had been living in the neighborhood for 10 years when, in 1981, he decided to open “Street School” in the vacant storefront beneath his Hollins Street apartment. Save for a bar on the corner, the entire block was vacant.

“The landlord offered me a space and I decided to make something happen,” Trimper says. “I had an education background and I wanted to do something for the kids.”

Street School began as a space for children to make and display artwork, and later grew into an arts cooperative with a community darkroom and regular poetry readings and musical performances. To raise funds, Trimper took the school’s various activities outdoors and staged an Art in the Streets festival. Author and National Public Radio commentator (and former City Paper columnist) Andrei Codrescu read poetry at Trimper’s storefront, and later penned a Sun article describing “a kind of art fever” that was beginning to possess the area.

From farther afield came Bronx-born Teddy Getzel, a restless man with a penchant for punctuating his speech with raspy laughs; a man who would become one of the area’s most vocal and visible advocates. In the early ’80s, he was a self-described “mad epic poet of Greenwich Village.” Through friends, he met fellow New Yorker Stephen Loewentheil, a lawyer/developer who had begun buying and renovating properties in Southwest Baltimore. (Loewentheil was Trimper’s landlord.)

“[Loewentheil] told me he had this empty restaurant and he was trying to nurture an arts community around Hollins Street,” recalls Getzel, who came down in 1983 to open and manage the restaurant, called the Cultured Pearl. He slept behind the bar, sold turkey sandwiches, and posted poetry in the windows.

“I wanted to create an existential arts and poetry café, and I succeeded for quite a while,” Getzel says. “My core belief—and it may be stupid, and it may be archaic—is that art is a transforming energy, and it makes the world a better place to live.”

A new cook came on board and put burritos and enchiladas—then still pretty much novelties in Baltimore—on the menu, while Getzel continued to serve up a steady diet of poetry readings and art shows.

Various factions lay claim to first coining the area around the Hollins Market “Sowebo,” shorthand for Southwest Baltimore. By most accounts, it was meant to evoke solidarity with South Africans struggling for civil rights in Soweto. The etymology is less important than the fact the moniker stuck. The neighborhood—and the art movement—had a name to rally under. By the time Trimper left Baltimore for an extended bout of travel, his fledgling Art in the Streets festival had became the Sowebohemian Festival.

Some in the community had reservations about the nature and goal of the area’s cultural revolution. Artist and furniture restorer Dan Van Allen moved to Arlington Avenue from Bowie in 1980, carving out studio and living space within a battered rowhouse he bought for $11,000.

“Loewentheil posted a manifesto on one of his buildings at time that said he planned to make this an ‘artsy’ neighborhood,” Van Allen recalls. “The fact that he used the term ‘artsy’ instead of ‘artistic’ showed he didn’t really have an understanding of art.”

Van Allen feared his neighborhood was being set up for the classic gentrification process: Artists serving as shock troops colonize a fading area, which attracts higher-income professionals, whose deeper pockets drive up prices and drive out the artists. Fueled with state loans and tax credits, Loewentheil launched ambitious multiple renovation-to-rental projects in Sowebo buildings. His various real-estate arms soon controlled or owned more than 100 properties.

(Loewentheil, reached at the 19th Century Shop, the rare-books business he still operates in Sowebo, declined to comment on his motives and methods for the redevelopment effort, saying only, “It’s a long, old story I don’t feel like getting into.”)

Taking note of the changing winds in Sowebo, the state was willing to pony up money for large-scale renovation efforts. “Hollins Street was expected to be the next great neighborhood in Baltimore—on par with Otterbein or Ridgely’s Delight,” says Ed McDonough, spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development. “The project was somewhat different in that the arts community gravitated there, but it was going to be the next Fells Point—at least that what was thought in the late ’80s.”

While there was high-dollar activity in the community, there was also low-key, do-it-yourself element to the revolution. Graphic designer Joe Gorman, who moved into the neighborhood in the late ‘80s, (after a stint working in City Paper’s production department) opened the Corner Coffee House near the east end of the market in 1992. “I had no interest in running a business,” he says. “It was really a whim. One day I just decided I wanted a coffee place on my corner, and if nobody else was going to do it, I was.”

The Corner Coffee House became yet another venue for poetry and art shows, and yet another reason for people outside the area to seek out Hollins Market. Another community gathering place was Max White’s Market Café, which locals describe as a former “cop bar.” The young and artistic crowd became regulars at old-school bars such as Scallio’s, situated a block west of the market and operated by the Scallio family since the end of Prohibition. The small tavern, with its grim facade of Plexiglas and a buzzer system to admit (and deny) patrons, became a nightly gathering place and an unlikely venue for yet more readings and film screenings.

The Cultured Pearl became a victim of its own success by 1990. The restaurant was so popular and crowded that its artistic offerings were shunted aside. To relieve the strain and provide another venue, Getzel and some partners opened the Tell Tale Hearth restaurant on the opposite side of the market in 1991 (paying homage to another west-side literary figure, Edgar Allen Poe). Not long afterward, Gypsy’s Café opened at the east end of the market as an adjunct to another old-time watering hole, the Tom Thumb.

“When I moved there in [the early ’90s] there was this big community and all the restaurants were open,” says Antony West, a chef in Fells Point who rented a house near Gorman’s coffee house. “There were always great potluck dinners and bands were playing and there were always good art shows.”

 

At center of all the burgeoning activity stood Hollins Hall, a looming brick structure sporting rows of 15-foot-tall windows within English medieval arches. It was built above the west end of Hollins Market in 1838 to serve as meeting space for the neighborhood, and is the last surviving market hall in the city. For generations it served as a recreation center, dance hall, and community space. Following Baltimore’s Great Fire of 1904, it briefly housed the Maryland Institute, College of Art.

“I remember sitting on my grandmother’s steps listing to music drift out of the hall,” Dominic Rigatuso says. “I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to go to the dances there.”

Though the hall fell into disuse back in the ’60s, many considered the city-owned structure one of the neighborhood’s greatest assets. But after fruitless years of struggle to reopen the space, some came to see it as a brick-and-mortar symbol of the city’s unwillingness to help Sowebo flourish.

“That space is still sitting there empty,” Van Allen laments. “If the city would just rent it to us we would fix it up and make use of it, but there’s always some reason why it has to remain empty. We really need places for teenagers to go instead of the streets.”

As far back as the early ’80s, Trimper began seeking funds to move his Street School into the hall. Since then, various other groups with plans to convert the looming hall into some form of art, performance, and recreation facility have come and gone. The latest effort began three years ago, when a group of neighbors formed Hollins Hall Inc. They estimated it would cost $800,000 to restore the long-neglected room into a cultural center.

“For years now the city has had other agendas and other places they felt were more important,” Getzel says. “The most absurd manifestation of this was the amount of money they attempted to pour into Howard Street to form an arts community where none existed. Hollins Hall could have been a key piece of development here, and far less expensive than what they wanted to do to on Howard Street. The infrastructure is already here, the artists are already here.”

Sowebohemians also locked horns with the city over zoning. The commercial areas around the market are subject to a restriction that prohibits live entertainment. When businesses ignored the rule and brought in bands, they were frequently shut down by the police. The zoning restriction, residents learned, was primarily put in place to prevent strip clubs and topless bars from invading the neighborhood. Getzel and others tried to have the zoning modified to allow for “clothed” entertainment, but without success.

“Many people were spending so much energy trying to get things done, and nothing could get done,” Gorman says. “You can only try to change negative aspects of the neighborhood for so long before you become sick and frustrated.”

The Corner Coffee House, never exactly a cash cow, closed in December 1995, despite the heroic efforts of Gorman and a few neighbors who pitched in to try to keep it afloat. The Tell Tale Hearth closed in 1994. As Getzel tells it, the Hearth was a victim of another problem: the rising fear of crime. In the summer of ’96, the city imploded the towering Lexington Terrace housing projects along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Some Sowebo residents came to feel that the bad elements that made life miserable in the high rises were invading their neighborhood.

“Suddenly, it just seemed like there were a lot more people hanging out on the street,” Landis McCord says. “It was dangerous enough when we moved in, but when you start seeing 16-year-olds on the street at 4 in the morning, you know nothing good is happening.”

The influx had various nefarious effects on the fledgling arts community.

“When I moved here, everybody seemed to get along, whether you had money or no money, or were white or black,” Letteron recalls. “It was a very friendly neighborhood. But when the drug markets arrived here, schisms developed, particularly along racial lines. It hurt.”

Against this backdrop, the area’s extensive residential renovation efforts began to sour. Unable to keep his apartments profitable, Loewentheil fell behind on his loan payments to the state. He decided to sell the properties to first-time homebuyers, a move many in the community wanted all along. But the prices soon proved too high, and the quality of the renovations too low.

“It was always cheap, cheap, cheap,” says Adler, who was hired to do plaster work on a few Loewentheil properties. He says that whenever he questioned the quality of the work—such as when he noticed particle board being used for external window trim—the people in charge told him, “These are only rental properties.”

Stories appeared in The Sun about buyers of supposedly renovated Sowebo houses who were besieged with leaky pipes and roofs and faulty heating and air-conditioning systems. The state set up a hotline to deal with the flood of complaints. Ultimately, in 1995 the state was forced to foreclose on the remaining unsold properties—an action the state housing department told The Sun cost the state $2.5 million. In a 1992 City Paper interview, Loewentheil acknowledged that “perhaps we bit off more than we could chew.”

Sowebo’s fortunes continued to spiral downward. In January 1997, a 3-year-old boy, James Smith III, was shot to death while waiting for a haircut at a Carrollton Avenue barbershop—caught in the crossfire of an argument that erupted into gunplay. This horror shocked the city, but many in the neighborhood were less than surprised; the shop had long been suspected to harbor drug activity. Police had responded to community concerns prior to the shooting, but concluded that drug dealers were only meeting at the shop, not dealing there. Residents’ relations with police became strained.

In September 1997, Gypsy’s Café filed for bankruptcy. JoeAnne Whitely, whose family owned and ran the restaurant, says internal business and familial problems brought about the demise, not rising crime or declining patronage. But whatever the cause, the closure was a blow to the community. The eatery, with its outdoor seating and extensive beer list, had been a popular gathering spot for Sowebo residents and visitors alike. Equally important, its bar and kitchen provided employment for many young artists and musicians.

“I think once the businesses started drying up, people got discouraged,” says West, who moved from Sowebo earlier this past fall. “Except for the tight-knit artist community, for the most part you’re living in the ghetto. Once the neighborhood kind of decayed I felt lonely and wanted to join my friends in Charles Village.”

For some, Sowebo’s decline was crystallized even earlier—last May, when a well-known neighborhood woman was brutally stabbed to death while cleaning the Tom Thumb bar after closing. Though an arrest was quickly made—and it ultimately turned out to be a domestic matter rather than a random street robbery—the damage was done.

“That horrible stabbing just put the exclamation point at the end of the whole thing,” McCord says. The attitude, he says, was, “Get out while you can.”

 

While the local media relayed horror stories of Sowebo’s crime and crumbling houses, other Baltimore neighborhoods blossomed with robust new prosperity. Hampden and Canton began to draw new residents; cafés, art galleries, bars, and restaurants (including funky Mexican ones) sprouted along their streets.

“In the early and mid-80s, when the artists began trickling into the Hollins Market neighborhood, it became much like what I think Hampden is now,” says Betsey Waters, president of the Hollins Market Neighborhood Association and a resident since 1978. “Only now Hampden has by far passed what we ever were.”

Glassblower Anthony Corradetti moved from Hampden to Sowebo in 1989. With considerable effort, he transformed an abandoned public comfort station and an adjoining tomato-packing warehouse into a glass studio, retail outlet, and living space. Though he says he “couldn’t ask for a better glass studio” and that his family has “dug into the neighborhood,” there are times when he rues his decision to move.

“When I left, Hampden was quiet,” he says. “It looked like this area was the one that was going to grow.”

Like others in Sowebo, he feels isolated and forgotten—cut off from the rest of the city by the barrier many feel Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard has become.

“The city has put zero effort into this neighborhood,” Corradetti says. “All their effort goes into waterfront areas like Fells Point and Canton and things like the Harbor Walk. They’re just interested in bringing in big-time, big-money players while this neighborhood goes to pot. Maybe if we could dig a hole and put in some water and boats, we could get noticed.”

That today’s “hot” neighborhoods are in overwhelmingly white sections of the city hasn’t gone unnoticed to some in Sowebo, particularly Getzel. According to the 1990 national census, Sowebo was 60 percent white and 37 percent African-American. A 1997 report from the statistical firm Wharton Econometric Forecasting Associates estimates those numbers have changed to 43 percent white and 53 percent African-American.

“The fact that this is a mixed neighborhood is frightening to some white people because of their racial attitudes,” Getzel says. “They’re afraid to go somewhere where they’ll see black faces.”

Joe Gorman now lives in Hampden and witnesses firsthand some of the street-level energy he once saw in Sowebo. But he detects some differences too: “It seems to be happening in Hampden on a more material scale. Sowebo was more just a place to hang out. Hampden is becoming a place to shop.”

Still other neighborhoods are now actively courting artists. The Fells Point Creative Alliance held a workshop specifically designed to help artists become homeowners in Southeast Baltimore. Highlandtown’s Patterson Theater is currently undergoing a $2 million renovation that will transform the vacant theater into a cultural center featuring artists’ housing, galleries, and performance spaces.

“This neighborhood is a contradiction,” Rigatuso says of Sowebo. “We’ve got a great nucleus here in the market, we’ve got talented people. This neighborhood should be developing along with the rest of them.”

Some hope came in 1994, when the federal Empowerment Zone (EZ) program was launched. Hollins Market lies in the southwest corner of the Poppleton Village Center, one of six designated areas where $100 million in federal funds are to be made available for business and residential improvements. Money to renovate Hollins Hall was part of the city’s original EZ proposal, but the project seems to have since slipped from the agenda. Michael Preston, spokesperson for the Empower Baltimore Management Corp., the agency set up to oversee the EZ program, says he believes the Hollins Hall project “was no longer a priority.” (Calls to the Poppleton Village Center were not returned before press time.)

“The Empowerment Zone is a joke,” Corradetti scoffs. “I haven’t seen [any benefits] for this area.”

Corradetti heard about an EZ program that provides a $1,500 grant/loan for residential-facade improvements. He tried for more than a year to apply, but finally gave up in the face of repeated responses of “Call back later,” or “That program isn’t in place yet.” His frustrations are shared by others.

“I don’t want to have to kowtow to the Empowerment Zone,” Waters says. She adds that her neighborhood group no longer feels like a partner in the federal program: “You have to jump through too many hoops.”

 

For all their professions of feeling victimized, neglected, and abandoned, nothing makes Sowebo’s remaining artists and residents bristle more than hearing people pronounce their community dead—a conclusion many jumped to after the Cultured Pearl’s October closing became a major media event.

“Sowebo is not a restaurant,” asserts painter Scotty Stevenson, who bought a dilapidated Sowebo rowhouse for $7,500 in 1988 and converted it into his live-in studio. “Sometimes a neighborhood’s commercial nightlife—its bar scene—gets spliced in with the art happenings in the area. That some restaurants have closed here over the past year or so should not be equated to a demise in artistic activity.”

Though there have been departures, perhaps no other city neighborhood rivals Sowebo’s density of established, nationally recognized artists—from John Ellsberry, whose tile mosaics were featured in November’s Harper’s magazine (Ellsberry is also a City Paper contributing photographer), to Tita Rutledge, whose custom costumes will appear in Barry Levinson’s new film about Baltimore life, Liberty Heights, and next Halloween’s Life magazine.

Commercially, Gin Nakagawa continues to run the Sushi Café (CP’s 1998 honoree for Baltimore’s Best Sushi) next door to the closed Cultured Pearl; Gypsy’s has been reborn as Greg and Nan’s Beer Garden Café; and a thrift shop has opened across from the shuttered coffee house.

“If you can say this neighborhood has gone down, then it has probably gone down as far as it will go,” Adler says. “I haven’t given up hope. I liken it to a phoenix about to arise from the ashes. Right now is the best time for someone to come into the neighborhood and buy something. Prices are down.”

Adler also says he recently “fought City Hall and won” in his all-volunteer effort to save five Lemmon Street rowhouses from demolition. Two of the houses, through a donation from the Maryland Historic Grant, will be converted into a museum on the lives of 19th-century railroad workers, who occupied the row; the others will be renovated for homebuyers. And neighborhood activists believe they are on the cusp of convincing the city to make West Lombard Street a two-way street, which would slow down traffic, reduce noise, and bring a more residential feel to the busy corridor. The Department of Public Works is currently evaluating the public response to the proposed change.

Another bright spot is the Black Cherry Puppet Theater, which is forging ahead with plans to convert two once-condemned rowhouses in the shadow of Hollins Market into a puppet-performance stage, workshop, offices, and an education center. Black Cherry is still lining up funding but hopes to begin the initial phase of construction by late next spring.

“Whatever happens to this neighborhood, we’re going to be there,” says Michael Lamason, the puppet troupe’s co-director. “It’s not just the artists here who have supported us, but the people born and raised in the neighborhood.”

And slowly, the Maryland Housing Fund is selling the foreclosed residential properties to homebuyers. Renovated houses that once sold for between $40,000 and $120,000 are now going for $35,000 to $72,000.

“If you look at it from the higher-public purpose view, while the cost may not be worked out like everybody wanted, the bottom line is that we have instilled 16 or so homeowners on those blocks around the market, and we have several more contracts pending,” the state housing department’s McDonough says. “The big lesson learned is that we have to be more conscious of what the market will bear and maybe not be so accepting of a developer’s word on what he thinks the market will bear.”

Looking back, Waters, Van Allen, and other feel the state’s money would have been better spent funding individuals’ efforts to purchase and renovate homes rather than funneling money to one developer who, in Waters’ words, “tried to put his own vision on the community.” To most in the neighborhood, though, Loewentheil had good intentions but a poor methodology. One problematic legacy of the failed development effort is that ownership of numerous vacant properties around the market —including one condemned building—are now tied up in a confusing tangle of companies and partnerships all related to the group that owns the Cultured Pearl. Some feel this creates an impediment to future entrepreneurs.

“Don’t get me wrong—the Loewentheil movement was largely responsible for what was happening here at its height,” Adler says. “But now they have to let things go and give somebody else a chance—to come to terms and not hold out for top dollar values.”

Loewentheil asserts that all of the vacant buildings he’s involved in are available “for a reasonable offer.” He adds that the neighborhood revival “can start again,” and says he’s more than willing to help “all those people who think they can do better.”

The Cultured Pearl is for sale as a working bar/restaurant for “between $75,000 and $85,000,” according to the property manager handling the building. The owners are asking $3,000 a month to rent the space. The neighborhood has been buoyed by rumors that some interested parties are sniffing around the site.

But nothing makes remaining residents breath easier than the drop in crime. Community relations with the police have never been better, they say, and the drug dealers who once prowled brazenly in front of the market are gone.

“There was a whisper campaign among other parts of the city that Sowebo was dangerous—you could go there and have a good time, but it’s dangerous,” Stevenson says. “There was almost a relish out there when some people felt they were proved right. A lot of us who have lived here a long time don’t feel that way.”

“It’s definitely safer now than in 1994—and safer now then when I arrived here,” Letteron says. “But the perception remains.”

Many veteran Sowebohemians believe conditions in the neighborhood have come full circle.

“After living here for 30 years I’ve had so many people ask what the status of the neighborhood is,” says Eddie Whitely, a former co-owner of Gypsy’s who now refinishes furniture in a Union Square garage. “I kind of feel it’s all gone back to the way it was before Loewentheil and the others arrived.”

And some young artists are filtering back into this proven-fertile ground. Lisa Dillin, a photographer and sculptor recently graduated from the Atlanta College of Art, moved into an Arlington Avenue house with three other young artists in September. They have no firsthand knowledge of what Sowebo was like in its heyday.

“I’ve heard all about it,” Dillin, 22, says. “I can’t believe it used to be like that.”

She decided to move to Sowebo for the same reason artists were drawn here 20 years ago: It’s affordable.

“I would love to have a part in doing something with this community,” she says. “But basically, right now, I just want to get a small group of artists excited about art by having a space to show.” A small gallery has been created on her building’s first floor. Currently, it’s only open for shows once a month, but Dillin hopes to build on this modest start as she settles in.

“One or two people I spoke with thought it was scary down here, but I don’t think it was a huge issue,” she says, reflecting on her decision to become a Sowebohemian. “When we happened upon the space it just seemed so perfect.

“Now if there were just some decent restaurants around here. . . .”

Related stories

Feature archives

More Stories

The Mayor of Fells Point (6/16/2010)
Neighborhood fixture Leroy Moore taken off the street

Get on the Bus (6/2/2010)
A new initiative attempts to reconnect Baltimore Jews with their roots around Druid Hill Park

Baltimore Director of Recreation and Parks Resigns (10/27/2009)
Baltimore Parks Director Wanda Durden steps down

More from Brennen Jensen

Period Pieces (8/1/2007)
Why A Maryland Man Turned His Rec Room Into The World's First Museum Of Menstruation

Wild Bunch (8/9/2006)
Prickly Racial Politics And Murderous Mafia Plots Amid Baltimore's Banana Wars

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers (4/19/2006)

Related by keywords

Sweet Tooth Dessert Shop in Feedbag 3/6/2009

Tags: sowebo

Comments powered by Disqus
Calendar
CP on Facebook
CP on Twitter