Thursday, May 3, 2018

Here is what the Station North A&E non-profits have been up to lately

If a vibrant arts and entertainment district doesn't have any new entry on its website since December 2017 and says "No Ongoing Projects at the moment" it rings the alarm bells in anyone who recalls how the previous staff such as Ben Stone were each Friday morning live on WYPR to rattle off a long list of weekend events. Stone was the executive director of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District non-profit. After him came  Elissa Blount Moorhead with some fanfare and hope for more equity in the arts, but she didn't even last a year and resigned a year ago.
"Since she became Executive Director last fall, it became clear that the goals and ambitions of the organization were out of alignment with the structure and resources available. Elissa offered a number of thoughtful recommendations for how SNAE might best move forward, including offering her resignation in order to reorganize operations," SNAED's statement 
Station North's arts district defines much of central Baltimore
(Image source: CBP website)
The City Paper reported at the time that "Amelia Rambissoon is currently acting the Interim Executive Director and she notes that 'here is no active search [for executive director] launching right now,' and SNAED intends to "restructure and figure out the next steps/what makes the most sense for the organization."

Rambisson, who has no longer any staff, assured me for this article that SNAE is doing well and that many things happened in 2017 and that many more will happen this year. She sent me the annual report for last year and a schedule for the YNOT lot. In the annual report she states:
During the past year at Station North Arts & Entertainment, Inc., we have had a successful year of programming; starting with Wickerham & Lomax’s
amazing tribute to Odells Nightclub through the Light City “Neighborhood Lights” program, moving into a robust season of Ynot Lot programming with 42 events,
overlapping the launch of Station North Mini Golf during Artscape into the fall.
The organization also spent a lot of time reflecting and energizing the board while identifying strengths to build on while solidifying goals to guide programming and development. Earlier this year, we redefined our focus to invest, promote and preserve. With these new values in place, there is a lot of enthusiasm and commitment to shift the focus of the organization to serve
the community in the most meaningful way possible.
Central Baltimore Partnership communities: Station North is
not a community name but a designated district
(Image source: Front and Center)
The YNOT lot, a pop-up event space on Charles and North had been the subject of an activity review through a grant given to NDC for using the methods developed by the now 81 year old Danish architect Jan Gehl. A film documenting the findings was presented by NDC Director Jennifer Goold last October in Amsterdam, more is listed on the Gehl website:
We discovered that events make the whole area more positive. People’s perceptions of the neighborhood rose when there was something going on at Ynot. Observations about the unprogrammed space, like “transitional” and “disconnected,” became “convenient” and “great for community functions” during programming.  Programming was also great for leveraging positive activity. It supported physical movement and social and commercial activity. It also encouraged people to stop and stay. With no entry fee, the Ynot Lot events were open to all—a crucial draw for a community in which 40% of visitors surveyed earned less than $10,000 per year.
YNOT-Lot statistics (SNAE annual report)
The Gehl article about the YNOT lot includes this conclusion:
Viewed through the lens of Gehl Institute’s public life tools, the Ynot Lot offers a strong counter-narrative to the typical gentrification story, in which white creatives displace working class and low-income communities of color.
The question whether artists as revitalization pioneers open the door to gentrification  and displacement (ultimately of themselves) has been around ever since artists as pioneers have been discovered as a method of urban planning in Manhattans SoHo neighborhood decades ago. If anything, the YNOT lot is just a lens through which one can see the issue which, of course, is much bigger than one lot.

The artists-as-pioneers method has been replicated around the world and ultimately stands behind the creation of Maryland's State sanctioned formal Arts and Entertainment Districts. (Baltimore City has three of them: Highlandtown, Station North and the Bromo District in the  Westside of downtown). In the case of Station North  the arts district is embedded in the larger Central Baltimore Partnership (CBP). The partnership maintains that equity is a major tenet of its activities and avoiding displacement a designated goal. (A map of the CBP neighborhoods can be seen here).
"To make sure that we all move forward together, CBP Partners have created various programs for our lower income residents — ranging from workforce development, to helping seniors with home repair issues. But recently, we felt that our past efforts were not enough, that we had to come up with a more comprehensive approach to further our goal of making Central Baltimore a better place for everyone.
That’s why we launched Front and Center: A Comprehensive Equity Program. It’s a multi-stage program that began with a survey of residents to see what they need most; and we are now focusing on 3 issues — Workforce Development, Youth and Family Services, and Community Health. Front and Center is a high priority of CBP. (CBP website)
The 232 page Front and Center report gives a pretty thorough overview of existing demographics and how they changed during the years since CBP and then Station North have been in business. In the aggregate the CBP area (named: Target Neighborhoods in the graphics) doesn't show signs of gentrification, displacement or a shift in the ethnic make-up, even though massive investment has gone on in the area, vacant houses have markedly decreased and the community of Remington inside the CBP district is frequently named as a poster child of gentrification. (Text continues below image)
 Central Baltimore: Atypical population increase, maintaining diversity  (Image source: Front and Center

There are other stakeholders in Station North that cater to the artists and ensure that artists will not be pushed out by their own success. One of the influential stakeholders is the art oriented Deutsch Foundation and its subsidiary the Baltimore Arts Realty Corporation BARCO which has funded Open Works, a maker space on Greenmount Avenue and other spaces in the area. In a conversation about artists, affordability and actions to protect both, CBP director Ellen Janes told me that when the Bell Foundry building was shut down by the Fire Department because of fire code concerns, BARCO and others stepped in quietly to ensure that cheap places currently offering artists space to operate in Station North (Copycat, Area 405 etc.) would receive upgrades to make them safer and more code  compliant.

A new $250,000 state bond will move the creation of safe and affordable artists' spaces  across Greenmount Avenue for the first time, a move formally approved by the CBP as Ellen Janes reports.  The Compound in Midway is the first move, the state bond is for "the acquisition, planning, design, construction, repair, renovation, reconstruction, site improvement, and capital equipping of an arts complex to include housing, a library, a community room, maker space and a garden.[...]. The Bond Bill fact sheet further states that "The purpose of the project is to complete life safety and code improvements to the facility in fulfillment of the recommendations of Mayor Catherine Pugh's Safe Arts Space Task Force." BARCO is providing technical assistance for The Compound, a nonprofit organization founded in 2010 which is transforming the vacant 22,000 square foot former forklift factory in East Baltimore's Midway into a vibrant new live/work hub. The Compound is a newly formed non-profit organization that acquired a vacant factory complex and is transforming it into a community space focused on the arts, woodworking and music. The Compound has invested more than $350,000 in the project to date."

BARCO is also leasing the northeast corner building at North Ave and Charles from owner Tony Cheng to install a more permanent version of the pop-up shop that sold "Made in Baltimore" goods there during the last holiday season. Another place for artists will be the facility of the Afro-American publication in the 2500 block of North Charles Street which the Deutsch Foundation obtained last year.

With all those stakeholders baking art into the future of  the area, SNAE's role as a resource clearing house or promotor the area in the wider City context becomes more plausible. Ironically, SNAE's popular "all over streets" art-walks came to an end when fire code compliance came into focus. One can hope that after buildings have been made safer, those events will come back in some form.
Not much gentrification: Poverty in "target neighborhoods" (CBP)
remains high.

SNAE is certainly in a phase of reorientation in which it has to recalibrate to fewer resources. The new strategies reflect a "shift from doing place-making and events to  being a resource and connector" according to board chair Elaine Asal. These strategies along with the change in board members position SNAE as a "resource clearing house" and allow an "identity refresh". Asal points to weekly SNAE e-mail blasts as proof that there still is healthy and plentiful programming. 

Regardless of how SNEA positions itself, the phenomenon of economic development through artists will remain, Station North will continue to be an attractive and innovative arts district with much that is happening there continuing to elicit the vexing questions of gentrification through art and the ways to achieve equity.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

updated SNAE Strategy
Station North Annual Report 2017

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