In Formstone Portraits, MICA Grad Student Captures Faces of Gentrification in East Baltimore

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Portraits from “Facing Change,” by MICA graduate student Ben Hamburger.

For longtime dwellers of the neighborhoods around Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Dunbar-Broadway, the differences between their streets today and a decade ago are night-and-day. Amid razing of building and rapid redevelopment by Hopkins in East Baltimore, the structures they once occupied have been torn down and replaced, leaving behind piles of formstone debris.

But to artist, educator and MICA grad student Ben Hamburger, those remnants are more than just refuse. In his newest exhibition, “Facing Change,” a pop-up show in the school’s Decker Gallery, Hamburger has recycled those fragments and used them to tell residents’ and merchants’ stories. Each piece displays a portrait of someone who lives or works there – 19 in all, including himself – and is accompanied by a story in audio format.

“As an artist, sense of place is big for me,” he said on Friday at the premiere of his exhibition, which is part of this year’s MICA Grad Show. “The landscape is pretty weird there right now. There are these blocks of vacant homes and buildings shooting up.”

Hamburger interviewed residents, merchants, faith leaders and a developer, among others, near his painting studio in the Middle East neighborhood and in other sections of East and Southeast Baltimore. The effort actually began as an attempt to record the scenery in those areas, but morphed into something else entirely.

“It started with me doing landscape paintings outside as a way for me to interact with people and get these stories,” he said. “Over time, the stories themselves became the most important thing.”

In addition to painting their faces, Hamburger asked each subject to record a short interview. All of them  can be heard on a Soundcloud page, accessible by smartphone or on tablets affixed to the wall in the Decker Gallery.

A viewer listens to an audio interview accompanying one of Hamburger’s portraits.

In the interviews, residents recount cookouts and a sense of unity in their neighborhoods, some of which now suffer from violent crime clashing with redevelopment. One, identified as “Mr. Kevin,” tells of how the crime concentrated in his neighborhood today wasn’t there in the 1960s.

Another, “Ms. Annette” tells of how developers moved in on the area. As described in 2006 by the JHU News-Letter, residents living near the East Baltimore Development Inc. project based at E. Chase Street and Rutland Avenue in the 2000s began receiving buyouts or years’ worth of rent money to vacate their properties, allowing Hopkins to buy up the buildings.

“Basically, we had everything that we needed right there. Then, Johns Hopkins took over. All the families had to move out,” she says.

Another of Hamburger’s subjects, a man named Roger who says he is homeless, recalls in his interview that many of the buildings in which he has lived have now been torn down. He notes seeing blighted buildings can negatively affect young people growing up there – “when they see a lot of condemned or trashed [buildings], it takes away the hope they do have” – but says the benefit from redevelopment “doesn’t seem like it’s falling back into the community.”

Scott Levitan, director of development for Forest City-New East Baltimore Partnership, which is behind the East Baltimore Development Inc. project, is also a subject in the show.

“The reality is that this project is so challenging and so transformational and there is this underlying issue of town-and-gown breakdown, and all the things about race and economic disparity and educational disparity in East Baltimore,” he acknowledges in his interview. However, amid the tension, he says that “now, you can see the promise.”

Hamburger also portrayed and interviewed himself to offer an example of someone who recently moved into the rapidly changing area.

“I tried to get a bunch of different perspectives here…[to] keep it kind of objective so people can sort of see how these various stories compare and contrast with each other, and recognizing them all as true,” he said.

“Facing Change: Portraits and Narratives of the Shifting Cultural Landscape in East Baltimore” is on display through Sunday, April 30, at MICA’s Decker Gallery building, located at 1303 W. Mount Royal Avenue.

Ethan McLeod
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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in Baltimore City Paper, Leafly, DCist and BmoreArt, among other outlets. He enjoys basketball, humid Mid-Atlantic summers and story tips.
Ethan McLeod
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