Ten years ago, when Maryland state declared Baltimore’s Station North neighborhood an official arts district, the idea was to revitalize a downtrodden neighborhood with a smattering of artists and creative-class types, encourage new restaurants and stores to open up and bring new residents into a once-bustling section of Baltimore.
Ask Ben Stone, one year into his tenure as executive director of Station North Arts and Entertainment Inc., and he’ll tell you the neighborhood as it once stood is a shadow of the present Station North. Now it’s the home of Joe Squared, the Windup Space and other popular restaurants and venues. It’s a neighborhood teeming with artists and Maryland Institute College of Art students. Thanks to the Open Walls mural project completed in the spring, the artwork isn’t only inside the many gallery spaces.
And lest we forget, Station North was one of 51 locales nationwide to be awarded an inagural Our Town grant by the National Endowment for the Arts in July 2011.
Today, Station North celebrates 10 years as an arts district during its Final Fridays event. Technically Baltimore spoke with Stone about why art is just as important as STEM education, how he explains the district to outsiders who think it unsafe and what Station North has planned for the next year.
TB: What’s your response to people who just see Station North as unsafe and scary? Are people actually moving into the neighborhood?
BS: When I first started I spent a lot of time talking about safety and I have the statistic that violent crime of any sort is much more likely to happen to somebody in Charles Village or Mount Vernon than it is in Station North. Practically every conversation I have with someone would start with the crime issue and people thinking it’s unsafe here. Over the last several months I’ve kind of stopped saying that because not as many people seem to be as concerned about it.
I give credit to ourselves as an organization for having some events here and bringing people in, and people come to the area enough times and nothing happens to them—maybe they realize it’s actually not that bad. We’ve also had events in a number of different parts of the district … So people are not just coming to the Charles Theater and parking in the garage across the street thinking that area is OK. They’re being encouraged to stray [from that area] and things have been fine.
TB: OK, I get that, but do you still think you’re fighting a perception battle? After all, in the looks department, Station North is no Fells Point.
BS: To a certain extent, some of it you just ignore and accept that some people are that way. It is what it is. And Baltimore is a major American city, so it’s always going to have some issues that go along with being a major American city. Like a lot of people living in close proximity, which some people out in the suburbs aren’t accustomed to. It doesn’t mean necessarily that anything’s unsafe. It just means different. … You get all walks of life coming through here. So a lot of people see that and immediately associate it with something unsafe. Most of the time that’s not the case. It’s hard to convince everyone.
TB: How do you think Station North’s revitalization is affecting development in the city overall?
BS: There’s a renewed interest in Baltimore in general. I think this area is really poised. Go back to the mayor’s goal of having 10,000 more families move into the city. I think Station North is poised to receive quite a few of them. Because it’s a good combination of having available properties, buildings that are still vacant here, but unlike some other parts of the city, there are a number of assets and organizations working here. It’s not just a desolate, abandoned, vacant area—it’s an area with some vacancies, but there’s more of a potential with vacancy [here] than there is blight. … [And] we have universities right here—Johns Hopkins, the University of Baltimore and MICA.
TB: What’s your take on people wanting to change STEM education to STEAM education? A for arts, of course.
BS: I’m all for the A in steam. I went to MIT for grad school and did some artwork and some planning work, but there was a lot of overlap between the arts world and the engineering and technology world. I think it’s a very healthy thing, and I think people think of it as being kind of a weird combination, but it’s more common than people realize.
TB: What’s up with the Load of Fun building? Is it closed for good now?
BS: It’s not closed forever. The last update I got is that it’s temporarily closed. There’s a plan being worked out right now by Sherwin and an architect he has working with him, and probably some other folks. I don’t know what the timeline is for it to reopen. It sounds like it could be anywhere from a matter of weeks to longer. My guess is that it would be a phased sort of thing: part of it would open before all of it is open.
TB: What’s Station North got planned for the next year?
BS: Lot of fundraising going on. Our NEA grant period technically ends Oct. 2. That doesn’t mean we’re going to stop doing a lot of things we had done, we’re just looking for new funding. We have applied for money to do another round of Open Walls. … We’re planning to continue the Final Friday events.
Our big project right now is working on … the old New York Fried Chicken at the corner of [N. Charles Street] and [North Avenue]. We finally have our plans for that. We’re working on raising money. We’re going to move our offices in there and the Annex Theater.
TB: What can people expect at this 10-year party tonight?
BS: It’s open to the public. We have a hundred free Joe Squared pizzas on their way. … Governor O’Malley will be there—still up in the air whether he will have a guitar with him or not. John Waters will be there. Lafayette Gilchrist is performing as well.