For many locals, the term Station North, Baltimore’s officially designated Arts and Entertainment District, still draws a blank. Understandable really, because other than Joe Squared, the popular pizza and live music dive on North Avenue, what is there to see? But ask Charlie Duff, the charming and voluble head of non-profit development company Jubilee Baltimore, and you get a vivid picture of a neighborhood on the move.
“Baltimore is the number one city in the country for attracting young, educated kids over 25,” Duff begins, citing a USA Today story about top metro areas attracting 25-34 year olds. Between the percent change from 2000 to 2009 (we’re fourth), and the actual numbers, Baltimore does come out on top, and its vibrant arts and music scene is the most cited reason. The epicenter of that scene is Station North, where studios, theater companies, galleries, bars and clubs are coming up from the underground into the light of North Avenue, inviting comparisons to the arts scene that has revitalized large parts of Brooklyn, NYC.
Just finding Station North on a map can be confusing, as its borders seem to shift depending who you talk to. Most agree that its topmost border is North Avenue, from the North Avenue Bridge all the way east to Greenmount Avenue. Then, south on Greenmount for about four blocks to Oliver Street, and diagonally back up to the North Avenue Bridge, staying just north of the Jones Falls Expressway and Penn Station, including the Charles Theatre block, and forming a rough triangle.
The lynchpin of development in Station North is MICA, and the thousands of young, aspiring artists who thrive in the gritty, urban streetscapes of this neighborhood. “These kids are coming here to school – at MICA, and at Towson and Hopkins — and they’re staying in Baltimore,” says Duff, “the combination of cheap, empty real estate and access to big city services is revitalizing an area that was not so much a ‘bad’ neighborhood, as an empty neighborhood – there was just no street life during the day.”
Interestingly, MICA is not technically in Station North, its main campus being just over the bridge in Bolton Hill. But later this year, MICA will open Studio Center, the giant (120,000 sq. ft.) building across the parking lot from Joe Squared. At street level, there will be an outdoor terrace and café, and inside a public art gallery, where student work will be for sale. Together with the 300 artist residences and studios it will house, Studio Center stands to make MICA a major physical presence here.
A stroll down North Avenue, even at 10 a.m., is eye-opening. Jublilee has recently purchased the largest vacant building in Baltimore, the old art deco Centre Theater, for $93,000, with plans for a multi-arts facility. The old North Avenue Market is getting a $1 million renovation. The Single Carrot Theatre just ended a run of the play, “Hotel Cassiopeia,” and is now auditioning for the upcoming season. The Load of Fun Gallery (whose name is a creative use of the old sign for LOmbArD OF FUrNiture) is preparing for a new exhibition, and Liam Flynn’s Ale House is cleaning up from what looks like a rocking night. Open Walls murals enliven the scene.
Over on Greenmount Avenue and Oliver Street is City Arts, a newly built and fully rented subsidized artists apartment building, anchoring the eastern end of Station North. City Arts was built by the Jubilee Baltimore to house low-income artists who felt they were being pushed out by recent development in the area. In fact, the entire block of Oliver Street, Charlie Duff assures us, is occupied by artists and their studios. This morning, the buildings look abandoned, but sure enough, on closer inspection there are bedsheet curtains in the windows, notes on doors, pot in the air and other signs of artist life.
Further down Oliver towards Calvert, the huge old LeBow factory building is starting a new life as the Baltimore Design School, a public middle and high school for fashion design, graphic design and architecture – a presence which seems guaranteed to bring street life and retail to the area. (Groundbreaking on the school is May 7.) And over on Charles, there’s good news for anyone who has ever walked out of a movie at the Charles Theater only to be wait-listed at Tapas Teatro. The Chesapeake House next door, vacant for 20 years, has been bought by the owners of Mt. Vernon’s Milk and Honey Market, who plan to turn it into a restaurant and market.
For Charlie Duff, though, it’s not happening fast enough. “Private developers buy these buildings, “ he complains, “ knowing that the area is up and coming. Then they just sit there and wait to sell.”
So has Station North really arrived? Well, if Baltimore were Brooklyn, it for sure isn’t Park Slope. But it’s starting to look a lot like Williamsburg.