Victor Hugo once wrote, “All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.”
Sometimes all it takes is an idea.
For Richard Best, the idea began with an invitation from one of his fellow artists to paint in a deserted area behind MICA, just under the light rail tracks. As Best describes his first visit to the site, he conjures a treasure map — a circuitous route took him through tunnels, overgrown shrubbery and over train tracks — that ultimately led him to his treasure: a three-acre space that beckoned urban artists and suggested so many creative possibilities.
That first visit inspired what Best now dubs the Section 1 Project, and his vision for “the world’s largest urban art park.” Amid the concrete, overgrowth, and neglect, Best saw a public space where artists could “make art and be with people who make art.” His plan includes all kinds of art installations, murals, music, dance, sculpture, and even skateboarding.
At the time of his visit, Best was six months into a design leadership program through Johns Hopkins University and The Maryland Institute College of Art. The program challenges its students to focus on value outcome versus monetary gain through innovation, sustainability and human-centered design. With this in mind, Best developed a thesis that focused on repurposing under-used urban spaces into places of value, in this case, an artist’s destination. His hope is that this first Section 1 park will inspire others, just as similar projects he had studied had done in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston.
The name, Section 1, plays on the term Section 8 housing. He’d like the Section 1 name to become a designation for other urban art parks. Its mission, like Best’s thesis, is to transform blighted spaces into art destinations. Section 1 now serves as a non-profit organization that will be the umbrella under which all of the park’s multi-faceted activities fall.
Best’s own route to Section 1 seems like his own treasure map of sorts. He grew up in a small town in Atlanta. His simple surroundings beckoned something more so Best joined the army as a Military Intelligence Electronic Warfare Technician. He was charged with collecting intelligence around the world. While deployed in Afghanistan, Best specialized in drone technology. The experience led to his hiring at AAI, a Baltimore-based defense contractor, where, for two years, he resumed his worldwide travel, training soldiers to use drone equipment.
Despite his specialized training, he did not feel his work added value to the world. Throughout his travels, Best pursued his lifelong love of art, often painting and wheat-pasting murals on urban walls. The 3-D mural at 21st and Charles Streets in Baltimore is a representation of work he did in Korea. His artistic background and personal desire to help his world informed his decision to enroll in the Hopkins-MICA program. Best sees urban art as the tool to enrich communities like Baltimore.
Best, however, cannot bring the project to fruition alone. His professional and educational connections have afforded him a valuable network of city advisors and community advocates. One such advisor was Chris Delaporte, William Donald Schaefer’s former director of parks and recreation and a huge advocate of parks and open space. Delaporte had the wherewithal to introduce Best to Sam Polakoff, the managing director of Cormony Development. Polakoff not only has extensive experience in real estate development, construction management, and property management, but a vested interested in the community. His involvement in the renovation at Baltimore School for the Arts, as well as local non-profits like the University of Maryland Cancer Center and Maryland Art Place, made Polakoff a perfect match for Section 1. He now serves as the board president.
Polakoff admits that upon first hearing Best’s plan, he was skeptical. He recalls their first meeting, in the dead of winter, without access to the space. He had difficulty conceiving Best’s vision. He has since completely changed his tune, investing himself and his experience into Section 1. He focuses his energies on executing the practical issues involved with a start-up, leaving the creative side to Best.
The project’s location itself requires Polakoff’s knowledge of sight planning, engineering, city permits and construction. The proposed three-acre park sits on state-owned land and serves the Maryland Transit Authority. Amtrak is allowed right-of-way through the property. Both Best and Polakoff, however, conceive of a vehicle-free park accessible only on foot, from the Mt. Royal walkway. The site will include a 5,000 seat amphitheater, green space, a skateboard park and plenty of “studio” space for artists. The property is buttressed by the Howard Street bridge and brushes up against a tributary of the Jones Falls. These features, as well as the concrete arrow that initiates the property, add unique artistic and planning possibilities to Section 1.
While Polakoff insists that Section 1 is “all about Rich and the vision,” Best is quick to defer credit for his project. Instead, he invokes the wealth of community support and involvement he has already received. His eight-member board includes professional event planners, art promoters, and developers. He has also sought input from artists themselves. He names professional skateboarder, Billy Mode, as an advisor. Together, Mode and Best have designed a skate park that will be a unique aspect of the Section 1 project. He is also grateful to MICA and the local business owners for their support of the project.
If July’s Artscape is any indication, support for Section 1 is growing exponentially. As a means of building awareness for the project, Best and a group of friends sold bricks at Artscape. For a small fee, individuals could paint a brick. The profits benefited Section 1 and the bricks will ultimately be showcased in the park. Nearly 2,000 bricks sold that day. In fact, the success was so surprising that Best has lost valuable studio space storing them.
The enthusiasm for Section 1 should not be a total surprise. As Best himself reasons, Baltimore, a city bursting with with artists and musicians, is the perfect market to realize his vision. Polakoff adds that the three-acre site Best discovered, buffered as it is by MICA, the University of Baltimore, and Station North, could not be better situated. With his overriding mission to shape our community and enrich the lives of its citizens, Best seems well on his way to bringing his idea to life. Baltimore is fortunate to be the venue in which he will try.
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