Sunday, September 27, 2015

Why the Book Festival should return to Mt Vernon

At a time when

  • the book has repeatedly been declared dead, 
  • yet libraries flourish as centers of the community and as non-commercial spaces of public interest,
  • Baltimore asks with renewed urgency if local politics are all about the Inner Harbor and downtown instead of the neighborhoods 
Baltimore's Office of Promotion and Arts (BOPA) decided to move the Baltimore Book Festival after 18 years of success in the Mt Vernon neighborhood to the Inner Harbor! (SUN).

Initially this was done because the Washington Monument was undergoing rehab but now after that work was done, it's "oh well, we stay down there for good".
The book festival in its new corporate setting in shadow of Transamerica
and Bank of America
The reasons: Sponsorship is up and so is foot traffic, both, apparently,  lead indicators of the success of a cultural undertaking. 

Place the Book Festival where the foot traffic is already sky-high and your metric for people coming by your booths will rocket up. How about Times Square?

Instead of where culture is, put the Book Fair where the sponsors
Corporate sponsor gained additional visibility: Ford at the Science Center
are, brilliant!

Instead of being nestled between the Walters and the Peabody we now have to browse the books between Hooters, Ripley's and Bubba Gump with corporate towers looming over top and banner airplanes overhead drowning out the authors reading.

Books between Bubba Gump and Hooters
I am not making this up! Sunday four of those pesky planes circled over the stadium on occasion of a game which also brought record numbers of Flacco 5 shirt wearers as foot traffic along the booths of the fair. 
Tourists and sports fans add to the "foot traffic"

Having the Book Festival at the Inner Harbor is like holding mass at Hammerjacks or having the Symphony perform at the Ravens Stadium. An interesting experiment but not satisfying in the long run, at least not for those who care about the event's original purpose.
The promenade, always bustling with tourists is now crowded
with tents and booths blocking the view of the water

"The city that reads" is now "tourists who gawk" while up in Mount Vernon the newly restored Washington Monument presides over one of the most beautiful but empty urban squares anywhere in the world. 

Antero Pietila, local author and urban observer thinks that the move is attributable to "laziness on the side of the city, it causes more problems to close the streets up there" he says. 

The vendors at the booths are split in their opinions. Many like that they have more space and an easier time getting set up. None I talked to saw sales go up significantly. They all thought Friday evening was terribly slow. The three ladies at the Daedalus cash register reported that sales were actually down and all agreed that the "neighborhood character at Mount Vernon" was much preferable. A guy at Red Emma's tent also thought that it had been "nice to be in the neighborhood" but now enjoyed all the extra space he had at Rash Field. Another vendor complained that it was "way too spread out", a lady at the Pratt Library Children Stage saw advantages at both locations but complained that it was too windy at the waters edge to keep things on display. Folks of the Black Writers Guild preferred the Harbor. "At Mt Vernon they always put us next to the popcorn stand". I suppose that can ruin it. 

Ultimately, the different kinds of events in Baltimore should all have their own characteristics that their location should reflect. The book as a vehicle of free speech 
is ill suited for a promenade which is a semi private space with restricted rights. Put back into a true public space, Mount Vernon and use the Harbor to celebrate sailboats!

If Mt Vernon started to feel cramped, an easy response would be to extend the festival up further along Charles Street. 

Event planners know: Rather a cozy place that is crowded than a large convenient one where one feels lost.

At the Inner Harbor the Book Festival can never gather the necessary critical mass to create a presence on its own, It never gets the chance to create a real space because it is nothing but an afterthought to the ever louder and more vulgar hustle and bustle of the Inner Harbor.

How long will it take until BOPA will realize that the success of the Book Festival cannot only be measured in sponsor dollars, foot traffic and in sheer size?
The book festival was a good fit for Mount Vernon

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

I love you, BOPA, but I've got to say that I don't think Book Fest works at the Inner Harbor at all." (Fred Scharmen, architect)
They should try out holding bookfest underneath where I-95 crosses the middle branch surrounded by a grand prix of air boats to create a deafening wall of sound and beauty. (Graham Coreil Allen Multi Media Specialist)
 I liked it a lot more this year than last. I do prefer the atmosphere of Mt. Vernon to the harbor by far; plus, it's lousy with history and literature vibes. But part of me also feels like it's good to encourage those randos to read a book. I also like seeing all the bookworms (myself included) spilling on and off the circulator. So long as it doesn't move downna Canton, tho, i'll probably go wherever the Book Festival sets up shop. (Rahne Alexander, Operations at MD Film Festival). 
I'll never go to the Inner Horrible for book fest. Back to Mount Vernon or bust. (Don Clark Jr., self employed)
Antero Pietela, author and Baltimore observer thinks
the city just picked the easier route
 I got several books I wanted for free. I really like it in the harbor, actually. Less cramped space = nobody jostling me. Plus I'm not often in the harbor, while I go to Mt. Vernon regularly, so it feels sorta vacationy and unfamiliar. I heard 3 good panels, had a crazy huge raw oyster that was delicious and got to ride in Lou Joseph's golf cart. Maybe that is the key to the whole thing, Fred. Lou's golf cart is the place to be. Wherever it is. (Miriam Des Harnais)

The relation between the promenade and Rash Field is poor, a flaw particularly
evident during the Book Festival where important tents are hemmed in between
a wall and volley ball fields

Ships and books, an unhappy combination

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