Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Drinking Hub of Baltimore's "Cultural Corridor"

I first moved to Baltimore in 2007 after transferring to MICA, and there is one particular public city space that I frequently see serving the function of opening up this city. The Mount Royal Tavern has been a staple midtown tradition for myself, as well as countless others before and behind me. When reflecting on my own personal experiences of Baltimore, I can think of no other location that has confronted me with a more interesting cross-section of Baltimore life. Meanwhile, this local watering hole is always full of surprises, managing to bring together all kinds of different people with no other reasons to congregate, crossing paths that could have otherwise remained parallel.

The Mount Royal Tavern has stood there for well over a hundred years; during prohibition days it was even a speakeasy. Unlike so many Baltimore establishments who close their doors on Sundays, the Tavern is open 365 days a year, sixteen hours a day. Situated at a junction joining several different Baltimore neighborhoods, and a stone’s throw from the light rail, the establishment is surrounded by multiple uses of the surrounding neighborhood, from residential to academic, business to cultural. “When stores, restaurants, bars, clubs, parks, and offices are sprinkled among residences, people have a neighborly feeling about their neighborhood, they go out and encounter one another on the streets and chat. They have a sense of their neighborhood as a “spot” or “place,” because of that bar’s distinctive clientele, or the citywide reputation of the pizza at that restaurant. Both business people and residents tend to have more commitment to and care for such neighborhoods than they do for single-use neighborhoods.” (Young 239)

The members of this surrounding residential and professional community would not be likely to stop and converse with each other when passing on the street, but the Tavern brings them together, dissolving the concept of “stranger” that tends to separate ourselves from our own neighbors. Gathered here you can find a most irregular assortment of regulars, appearing out of wide varieties of lifestyles, ages, races, and occupations. Stagehands, military, ex-military, MICA students, MICA alumni, musicians, schoolteachers, the unemployed, suit-clad lawyers, animal cops, even the owners of other bars; all sorts end up coming around. Even dogs are welcome, especially as they are generally better behaved than most human customers. There is also space for artwork on the back wall, with shows rotating each month and continually making gallery space a reality for many. And so, needless to say, it’s been impossible to avoid engaging in some of the most unexpectedly interesting conversations and interactions I’ve found in this city or nearly any other, for that matter.

Just the other day I found myself sitting at the bar, casually jotting down some project notes on an ordinary Sunday night. The white-haired gentleman to my right, engages me in conversation, and proceeds to enthusiastically inform me of this avant-garde musical performance going on that very night a mere couple blocks away. Fran was insistent I attend even before finding out I happen to be a sound artist, so naturally it was right up my alley. He claimed he could tell just by looking at me that this event would be something of interest to me. And despite the lingering homework due Monday I was planning on finishing later that night, I made it out to the show, and just as guaranteed, it was more than worth it. I even had the pleasure of being introduced to numerous performers and organizers behind this event, which can certainly be a valuable method of networking for someone in my particular areas of study.

Another night I stroll down to find a small crowd gathered around the front stoop, watching this fellow wailing away on some strange sort of home-made electronic instrument, a bit reminiscent of a washtub bass. It consisted of a long stick atop a little Pignose amp which was plugged up to a contact microphone receiving vibrations from a plastic strip running the height; I later found out the plastic strip he bent and plucked with his fingers was nothing more extravagant than the stiff plastic strips they use to bind huge palettes of commercial merchandise. When asked why he built it, or brought it out that night, was as simple as a shrug.

And so it is nights like these where my appreciation for the Tavern and the regulars that inhabit it turns profound. Nowhere else have I found such a random menagerie of strangers that frequently broaden my horizons and open up new aspects of this city to me.


Corner E. Preston and N. Charles

content="text/html; charset=utf-8">

There are a myriad of reasons that you may find yourself on the corner of E. Preston and N. Charles at any point of the day or night. There are an equal of number of people and an equal number of resulting encounters that you can expect to meet and experience walking up N. Charles from Mt. Royal, making the left across Charles onto E. Preston.

This little bit of the city is so interesting because there are so many destinations within a 1-block radius. This above average number of destinations means that walking through this area you have an above average chance of meeting someone you know or someone who is going to the same place you are going to. While this is a place where you will see many cars, it really is a place intended for pedestrian folk. The majority of cars passing on N. Charles is made up of suit and tie affairs moving back and forth between the downtown skyscrapers and points north of the city. These people may give you a passing glance at a red light while they wait to cross Mt. Royal but by and large you never see them heading to Jerome’s or sitting outside of any of the Restaurants on N. Charles or E. Preston. Aside from the commuters the remaining automobile presence is limited delivery cars and delivery scooters often parked on the sidewalk right next to the tables and chairs. This general lack of parking is a wonderful thing. It means that by and large most people you see at any of these restaurants or heading in and out of the convenience store or liquor store are people from Mt. Vernon, Station North, or if not are probably University of Baltimore, MICA or JHU students. This narrowing of the crowd leads to a stronger sense of community between the individuals frequenting any of the destinations on this corner and raises the odds of a positive encounter.

Living on the edge of Mt. Vernon and Station North I walk or Bike around this corner at least twice everyday on my way to and from MICA campus buildings on Mt. Royal and North Ave. For me passing this corner is a kind of routine/ritual. I have become familiar with the fluctuating rhythms of people and traffic that flow around this corner and how these flows change throughout the day and week.

In the morning traffic is moderate on N. Charles as people will likely use St. Paul to access downtown areas while E. Preston has slightly high traffic as people move from points East of Guilford into the city. Pedestrians on mornings are scarce or moving quickly on E. Preston, however there are exceptions where people have stopped to get coffee at either Starbucks or XS. Mid afternoon sees slightly more pedestrians on N. Charles with a spike during lunch. The Traffic increases drastically on both E. Preston and N. Charles after 5:00PM as people rush to leave the city. Following the rush there is a similar surge of pedestrian traffic as the Bars and restaurants open for dinner. Finally evening brings probably the most interesting mix of traffic and pedestrian populations. There are almost always people gathered outside of Jerome’s Mr. Tony in his wheelchair conversing with anyone and employees of Nino’s smoking cigarettes or arguing with the delivery drivers. Dionysus puts out tables and chairs on good nights which gathers a good size crowd almost always. Around the corner Kebab Place is open till 10 or 11 and does well even this late. And further down you have Turps and XS which draw in the college crowd especially on the weekends. All and all this is a very interesting corner at any hour and one worth visiting.

(Note this picture was taken Sunday afternoon.)

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Crazy 8

While Baltimore city buses are generally lacking, I think the bus system is a worthy nominee for an open city space. Anyone with $1.60 can get on the bus, and while the routes could be better, the bus is certainly more useful than the north/south-only light rail. I recently rode the number 8 bus, which I have often heard referred to as “the crazy 8” (exactly why I’m not sure, but I like the mystery) and was reminded of just how fun the bus can be. The number 8 is pretty much a straight shot down York Road/ Greenmount Avenue that goes from Lutherville to the Inner Harbor and is better than most because it comes often and on time. On my ride I witnessed a revolving cast of characters exchanging warm greetings, concerned inquiries, flirtatious glances. It was like Cheers. I have never actually seen Cheers but I think that’s what its like. Many of the people who got on the bus were getting off their shifts at work as kitchen staff, Towson Town Mall employees, Starbucks baristas, employees of the Towson University cafeteria and the like and they all seemed to know each other. The boy sitting next to me was reading Being and Nothingness. The man behind me was trying to flirt with two of his coworkers at the same time. All kinds of people were on the bus, forced to sit next to strangers but not really minding. It was like a party bus. Maybe it was just a magical night on the crazy 8?

When I got off the bus a woman who had gotten off with me said goodnight, I replied in kind, and proceeded to get extremely lost in my new purposely maze-like neighborhood. I’ll admit it; I live in Guilford. (Its crazy and the house across the street is an actual mansion but my rent is the same as it was in Hampden by some crazy flaw in the universe). I was walking slowly and with a puzzled expression on my face when the neighborhood security patrol car pulled up. The security officer asked what I was doing there and then pointed me in the right direction. 

-Caitlin Williams

N. Howard

North Howard street


n. Howard st and Lexington.  A light rail honks its way through, gliding past a sea of people, cars  and pigeons  all heading in to their respective destinations.  You have probably been here before, it’s the place where someone is bound to say something to you. It may be a simple comment about your hat or a poet looking for someone to listen to his words. It might be the shouting of socks and dvds from one of the street vendors or someone looking for spare change. The space is populated by all walks of life depending upon the time of day or what events are going on down town.

This street, and the area four blocks in every direction is densely populated. It is easy to get to by way of mass transit or by foot. Here there are residences, offices, places of worship and affordable stores that range from reeboks to candle shops. This is an area where the variety of places both private and public makes this space open.  

My impression of the area is that it is largely local traffic, however there are some attractions in the area that bring in an outside crowd. The beauty of this place is that it belongs to the people, it does not appear to be cultivated or masterminded into existence.  The businesses inhabit the old architecture of long ago, interspersed with a few modern buildings as well as abandoned ones.

People go here for all sorts of reasons. When I first came to Baltimore I wondered down there in search of food, and so I found Lexington market, some stands up and down the streets as well as a fine walk around all the old buildings. Later I would walk through this section of town in the afternoon and in the late evening to work at Camden yards.  Though usually I am running a bit late sometimes I am able to interact with the people in the area.

One moment stands out above the rest,  a man named john serenaded me under the awning of a discount clothing store. His rendition of Barbra Streisands people:

With one person, one very special person 
A feeling deep in your soul says you are half now you're whole 
No more hunger and thirst but first be a person who needs people People who need people are the luckiest people in the world


Then I bought him some lunch.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Intersection of McMechen and Brevard Streets

I nominate the intersection of McMechen and Brevard St. as an example of an 'open city space.' This little section of Bolton Hill, while it is certainly not the hub of the neighborhood, is the perfect example of its 'open city potential.'

For one, it lacks the luster of the city as "an object of cultural consumption for tourists, for an estheticsm, avid for spectacles and the picturesque" (Lefebvre, 148). It's not 'pretty' or even necessarily well-designed, it seems to have fallen into place like "the ancient cities that have acquired the patina of life" (Alexander, Part I). No doubt, planners and administrators were aware of the dialogue that would take place between groups as a result of their proximity, but I expect much of its development happened without being engineered. Alexander addresses this in the second part of his essay "A City Is Not A Tree," admitting that a definite overlap and natural social interaction is difficult to introduce into an otherwise segregated area. "I must confess that I cannot yet show you plans or sketches. It is not enough to merely make a demonstration of overlap -the overlap must be the right overlap. This is doubly important because it is so tempting to make plans in which overlap occurs for its own sake. This is essentially what the high-density 'life-filled' city plans of recent years do. But overlap alone does not give structure. It can also give chaos. A garbage can is full of overlap... As the relationship between functions change, so the systems which need to overlap in order to receive these relationships must also change" (Alexander, Part II).

The mixed use of this space comes less from the nature of the spot itself than from its position between several unrelated establishments. People use and coexist at the intersection of McMechen and Brevard St. from The Commons, the Mount Royal Elementary and Middle School, as well as residents of the Bolton Hill neighborhood, some of whom are also MICA students. The students from the Mount Royal school seem to come mostly from just outside the Bolton Hill neighborhood. The placement of the school in this area, directs them, their teachers, and their parents or older siblings to the area. MICA students who live in Bolton Hill and who live in the Commons, make their way through this intersection on their way to and from class. Any of these parties may patronize Bolton Hill Blossoms, located right at the corner, the video store, the shopping center down McMechen Street, or On the Hill Café located just on the other side of the Mt. Royal school.

In his essay, Alexander decries "...the separation of recreation from everything else. This has crystallized in our real cities in the form of playgrounds. The playground, asphalted and fenced in, is nothing but a pictorial acknowledgment of the fact that 'play' exists as an isolated concept in our minds. It has nothing to do with the life of play itself. Few self-respecting children will even play in a playground" (Alexander, Part II). That seems like an exaggeration. The playground at the Mt. Royal school defies this immediately for its lack of enclosure. There is a low wall surrounding the property of the school, but it has several openings, and a wide thoroughfare runs through the campus, essentially an extension of John Street. 

At around 3:00 on a weekday, the Mt. Royal kids are either being picked up or beginning to walk home (often down Park Avenue or down Brevard Street behind the Commons), MICA students are returning from class either to their apartments in Bolton Hill or the Commons, and the usual non-student residents of Bolton Hill are out and about. It's a mix of foot traffic and cars. Any daydreaming pedestrian runs the risk of accidentally colliding with a small but enthusiastic Mt.Royal student. The Commons stoop serves as a hang-out spot during the day as well as the occasional yard sale, and during the evenings, a pick-up and drop-off point for the MICA shuttle. The corner of McMechen and Brevard is a stop for the public bus as well as the Collegetown Shuttle. The local fruit cart sometimes makes its way down McMechen, parents collecting their kids and Bolton Hill residents walking their dogs also populate the intersection. During the past few weeks I have even noticed a man selling ices on the corner of McMechen and Park. Most of the time this space functions as a good example of an open city space. It is important to note, however that "The open city is not a stable, but a dynamic state, a temporary equilibrium between openness and reticence, based on tolerance... This temporary equilibrium makes the open city vulnerable because her existence is threatened by her own mechanisms… of tolerance and voluntary closeness, in short by her own freedom” (Christiaanse, 3). The geographical closeness of these different communities or social groups can promote tolerance and peaceful coexistence, but it can also allow for a display of contempt and aggression. For example, in the area of Brevard Street just behind the Commons, a ground-floor back window of one of the Park Avenue apartments was broken. It is not certain who is responsible for the broken window, but I witnessed the resident taping the glass from inside. Within a week, a caged screen was installed, bolted into the brick, and a sign was posted –presumably by the resident- saying “Notice: All activities monitored by video camera.” It is situations like these that breed distrust from both parties and threaten the delicate balance of this “open city space.” Effort on the part of all members of the community to promote positive interactions between groups may help prevent the “…interconnected public space where tolerance is replaced by tension and even conflict and where physical and social barriers dominate” (Christiaanse, 3).

Mount Vernon-Washington Monument Plaza

I find that the area in Mount Vernon near the Washington Monument is a space which represents some of the ideals of “the open city.” This area is on North Charles St. approximately inbetween Madison St. and Centre St. It is easily accessible from many directions, including the light rail and Penn Station.

This plaza physically opens up because of the park-type area in the middle of the street. This extended median breaks up the street and allows for more pedestrian traffic, which in turn leads to more interaction between people. Now instead of just narrow sidewalks to walk on with building-fronts in our faces, pedestrians are given this large space to enjoy, whether they are just passing through or had the park as their intended destination. The park seems well designed, with large areas of grass which are kept well-manicured and inviting. There are also benches, which encourage people to sit down, take their time, and therefore possibly have more interactions with the other people and environment around them.

The groups of people walking through this area varies widely. Mount Vernon is a good transitional area where there are residences and businesses, and even other institutions such as churches. And, is it situated in this “midtown” area of the city in which people often walk (or drive) through it to get to and from the Inner Harbor area. The Inner Harbor is full of a lot of business people, as well as tourists and other various groups of people, all of whom are likely to walk through Mount Vernon as they head towards and away from the Harbor. This Washington Monument plaza is a very high-traffic area, so by encouraging pedestrians to stop and enjoy this park, and this beautiful monument to George Washington, it increases the interaction between the different groups of people traveling through that space. This element of the space exhibits the idea of “the city person and groups interact[ing] within spaces and institutions they all experience themselves belonging to, but without those interactions dissolving into unity or commonness” (Marion Young, 237).

Another reason this space has so much pedestrian traffic is because of the variety of businesses and establishments in this area. There are many restaurants and bars (Donna’s Café, Akbar, Ixia, Sotto Sopra, Owl Bar, Hippo, Grand Central) in the immediate vicinity, as well as many more just a few blocks away. There are also institutions like the Mount Vernon United Methodist Church, the Walters Art Museum, The Peabody Library, and of course the tall and proud Washington Monument itself which keep this space alive, busy, and well-used. And as Jane Jacobs said, “A well-used street is apt to be a safe street.” I personally have walked around this area at night by myself and felt safe; at least safer than in Bolton Hill which is strongly residential. Additionally, this variety of buildings brings together a variety of people. There is a strong “gay community” in this area with a few gay bars within a few blocks of each other, which in a sense may be a tool in an arsenal of exclusion; but I feel like that particular community is very open to having all types of people be involved in it, they are not exclusionary or “dissolving into unity or commonness” (Young, 237). They don’t close themselves off to other kinds of people who share this part of the city with them. In fact the gay community very strongly appeals to the idea of being accepting, open and undiscriminating towards others, spatially and morally. They often work hard to fight for equality among all groups of people, so I think having a prominent gay population in this area can help contribute to its openness. As Marion Young says, “In such public spaces people encounter other people [in this case the gay population], meanings, expressions, issues which they may not understand or with which they do not identify.” So people passing through this area of Mount Vernon who may not understand or identify with the gay community are forced to try, or at least acknowledge it’s existence; which echoes Young’s ideal of having different groups of people simply interact and acknowledge each other in a peaceable open space.

The Washington Monument area is definitely an enjoyable space which encourages interaction between different groups of people, utilizes the street in a variety of ways through residences, businesses and institutions, which I feel is a great example of an “open city” space.

-Michelle Alpert

The Tavern: Still Open

Is it just me or does one feel freer in the Station Building than in any of MICA’s other buildings? Right away one could hypothesize that this feeling of increased freedom is due to the station building forming the edge of campus, marking the beginning of the rest of the city; instead of being sandwiched between other private, institutional buildings one feels something of the extension of the world beyond and its boundless heterogeneity. No doubt this is true, but it is only partially responsible for the feeling of openness. As a freshman, I inhabited the space on the opposite edge of campus, the Commons, and I assure you that it did not posses the qualities in question. Rather it seems to turn away from the beyond only folding back in on itself. I have set foot in the Gateway only briefly, but I would venture to assert that, although perhaps slightly less severe, this hermetic condition prevails there as well. Perhaps, the walls of the Station are a little more like semi-permeable membranes, allowing it to assimilate some of the character of the surrounding area; however, I think that the architecture of the three buildings is not so much the key factor here . So what makes the Station unique? What makes this edge less severe? The Tavern.
Bars in general have always been known as ‘public houses’. In this case, the openness owes its source to something a little larger than individual buildings, namely the greater urban organization, the relationships between structures and functions. What we have here is an isolated yet potent example of the Jane-Jacobs-effect: the salubrious opening effects of mixed functions within the same neighborhood, bringing in fresh bodies and eyes, preventing the streets and one’s senses from stagnating. As one approaches the edge that is the Station, the world on the other side of that edge—manifested in The Tavern—inserts and asserts itself just within the boundaries of campus. It plants itself just before the Station, in between it and a long string of MICA buildings, puncturing the close knit-fabric of the campus and creating a mélange. And if this part of the outside world which juxtaposes itself with the campus is all alone—it makes up for this solitude by way of its colorful character. For The Tavern may be lacking in anything but character, character of an order somewhat opaque. The Tavern opens up a portal to a social setting that is other, removed from the hallowed, but let’s face it, sometimes stuffy halls of academic institutions.
I don’t want to villainize MICA, nor portray the role of The Tavern as completely in opposition to that of the school: The Tavern’s role is a necessary counterpart that is good for the school, and on the other hand, the Tavern certainly benefits from the school’s proximity too. “All work and no play makes one dull”, is a platitude that can’t be overlooked: when the intellect becomes either exhausted, joyfully reaches some final destination or loses its way in the labyrinths of thought one must either rest, celebrate or in the latter case, temporarily turn away and establish a distance between oneself and one’s puzzle so as to gain a fresh perspective on it—certainly the Tavern provides this distance, a place where there is no obligation to work. And on the other hand, how many times has The Tavern provided for students just released from school functions with recently learned ideas fresh in their minds the opportunity to discuss and explore the alternative possibilities of what they just learned in perhaps not enough time or in a more rigid way in the classroom? Even if one rarely visits The Tavern itself, while one works in the station building, in a small but significant way, they are also inside the Tavern at the same time, and this might even hold true for all of the other buildings throughout the whole campus, although I feel the pull is stronger the closer one gets (e.g. the printing facilities.) The Tavern provides a paradox: a place on campus, i.e. a place where one runs into classmates (whether one likes it or not, although one of things about the Tavern is that, perhaps unlike school, there is no obligation to speak to your classmates if one is so inclined), that is simultaneously OFF campus. The only thing left to open up The Tavern completely, the next big step: abolish the drinking age.

Belle Hardware!

“While I sweep up the wrappers I watch the other rituals of morning: Mr. Halpert unlocking the laundry’s handcart from its mooring to a cellar door, Joe Cornacchia’s son-in-law stacking out the empty crates from the delicatessen, the barber bringing out his sidewalk folding chair, Mr. Goldstein arranging the coils of wire which proclaim the hardware store is open, the wife of the tenement’s superintendent depositing her chunky 3-year old with a toy mandolin on the stoop, the vantage point from which he is learning the English his mother cannot speak.” –Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Jacobs does a wonderful job bringing out the true color and vibrancy of seemingly mundane everyday people and experiences. Just as these people and events that she witnesses are instrumental in her everyday “ritual”, the employees of Belle Hardware on McMechen Street are a wonderful ingredient in the various rituals of many local residents. The store is centrally located between the MICA campus, the Bolton Hill residential neighborhood, and lower-income housing areas. It is can be easily walked to from all of these places, and there is also a large parking lot that serves them as well as the surrounding businesses. Because it is next to a grocery store, a launder mat, and a Rite Aid, it is very convenient to come to this shopping center for all sorts of common chores and shopping. Due to its prime location and to the nature of a hardware store, this is often a critical place for all types of people from around the neighborhood to visit on a regular basis. They are well aware of their diverse demographic, so they keep in stock items appropriate for MICA students (bottle openers), construction workers (industrial saws), home owners (gardening tools), and small DIY projects (spray paint) alike. The prices are reasonable for most people and the employees are very knowledgeable and patient to help you with even the most obscure projects, not just for their “big ticket” customers. It is also a much more personable and manageable experience than going to a massive Home Dept or Lowes. These factors make it a very desirable and convenient place for all types of people to come for help. As I purchased a can of WD-40, I asked an employee if it were acceptable to take a photograph inside the store of him, he gladly agreed, and was quick to proudly point out that Belle was recently rated the “Best Local Hardware Store” in the City Paper, and gave me a copy to keep. Keep up the good work guys, I’ll be back soon for more!

Open Space Baltimore

The Open Space Baltimore is a great example of a supplement to the open city. The artist run Gallery/Performance-space/Venue is located in the small pocket of Baltimore called Remington, just east of Charles Village and south of Hampden.

The ideology behind Open Space is one, which is modeled similarly to the design approach, and development of Open source software. Open source simply means as it sounds, it is a term used to describe a design approach for creating new software, which grants feasible accessibility to the programs ‘source code’. This method or approach of multiple parties editing, opens up the critical factor of an interactive community. More diversity leads to grander ideas, and broader participation. The Open Space still in its early stages has taken this concept of open editing with its 8 or so founders (still growing) and has been organizing events since the summer of 2009.

Located in the small but busy community of Remington Open Space is directly off the Sisson street exit for interstate 83. The space is in an easy and accessible location by car, bus, or bike. An interesting factor to Open Space is in the unique setting. The gallery is located in the first floor of the multiuse building commonly referred to as the Baltimore Body Shop. The building houses mostly small automotive businesses, along with other spaces such as rented band practice rooms, artist studios, residential apartments and the Open Space. The uncommonness of the buildings visitors, along with the gallery location opens up the diversity of guests to the Open Space. Within walking distance from the building are two community gardens, diverse churches, multiple bars, restaurants, gas stations, residential housing, and a slew of other small businesses. The neighborhood of Remington is racially integrated and well watched by the residents often times from the comfort of their front stoop.

The key to Open Space is in its accessibility. The venue is open for anyone willing to propose projects whether it is curatorial work, music events, or panel discussions; Open Space is receptive to proposals of unbounded diversity.

The Open Space Baltimore was formed as a multi disciplinary space, which functions as a key factor in enriching the neighborhood of Remington. The Open Space offers to the community mostly free events, which are always open indiscriminately to the public. These events thus far have included but are not contained to: a variety of music shows, gallery events, movie screenings, community events and general gatherings.

If you would like to get involved email:

Derive on wheels

There are physical objects that can either open or close a city. In addition to these physical things, there are also activities that open the city for its participants. One such activity is riding a skateboard. Very similar to the idea of a derive, skateboarding takes people into areas of the city that would generally not appeal to visitors and changes the use of almost every aspect of the built environment. The act of skateboarding involves looking at the city as a whole through this any pre-constructed notions of division become invisible. “…the psychogeographical attractions discovered by derivers may tend to fixate them around new habitual axes, which they will constantly be drawn back.” (Guy Debord's "Theory of the Derive) Skateboarding gives you a reason to go to areas of the city that have no real attraction. I feel far more comfortable in parts of the city that aren’t generally safe areas if I am skateboarding there, and therefore have a reason to be there. People who live there also have an easier time accepting an outsider in their area and when they see a skateboard usually watch and cheer you on, although obviously this is not always the case. It is an act of discovery and skateboarders take pride in finding spots hidden away in corners of the city that no one has bothered to look before. Skateboarding involves looking at the city with an entirely different set of criteria that a normal everyday visitor would. Although the act of skateboarding through a city is “open,” many of the facilities created specifically for skateboarding are not. While there is something restrictive about skate parks in general, there are some that have many open city characteristics.

This skate park in Hampden is an inclusive part of the city, as opposed to most skate parks, which I believe serve to collect and exclude skateboarders from the rest of the city. The difference being, this skate park is free, unmonitored and most all of the obstacles are built or brought by the people who use the park. It is a mixed use area in a sense that everyone is welcome. It is an area where people can go to escape the harassment from the public who more often then not have a problem with this rolling plank of wood. Skate parks can often times exist to contain skateboarders and keep them off the streets. This type of park is usually built by the city, poor quality, and often in a very inconvenient location.

Together In Misery

The space I found was not one I voluntarily went to, but opened the city nonetheless. I don’t know many people who would happily take a trip to this location, yet many find themselves there, waiting, to be given back what’s there’s. The place I speak of is the impound lot, 6700 Pulaski Highway. Some of these people simply forgot or didn’t notice, others were victims of injustice or daring risks, and others were simply arrogant or drunk, but they all walked out to the organ dropping felling of their vehicle being towed or just plain missing. However, they all found themselves sitting, cursing, and waiting to see the damage.

In the waiting room, or short capacious hallway, a wide variety of people sat and stood amongst each other. Some were with friends, others with family, and others were just by themselves. However, they all had one thing in common, they were miserable. A silent empathy filled the air around us. There wasn’t a person in the room who neither looked nor could of possibly been content to be there. The city had caused all of them a great inconvenience, and was all about to charge them all a sizable fine. A look around the room revealed people barely being supported by their chairs, in a locked stare with floor, or casual half smile as if to say, “they got you too, huh?” It was a waiting room of city citizens joined together in misery.

As hours slid by like cold molasses, other uniting factors began to surface. Animosity swelled from those seated and gathered opposite the counter, all focused towards those behind the counter, were sat smugly and safely behind the eighteen inch square. A common enemy had emerged, and suddenly the heavy, gray prison bars blockading each counter’s opening didn’t seem so unnecessary. Evidence of this came as a woman exploded in fury, screeching about the pure injustice she faced in being charged for a car that shouldn’t have ever been towed. While this demonstration made those waiting semi-patiently noticeably uncomfortable, none seemed to be opposed to the hissy fit. Glares intensified, fists tightened, and nobody seemed to blame her, regardless of whether they believed her story. She stood against the common enemy, and in doing so united those whose city lives had been so gravely disturbed, regardless of guilt.

It was a silent revolution, fore no one moved nor spoke; yet it seemed to open the room a little more. The tyrant was identified and the victims held their stare. I don’t believe there was an innocent party in this metaphorical battle, yet each person played their part in “an intricate ballet in which the individual dancer and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose and orderly whole” (Jacobs). The players as follows: the man leaning against the vending machine unable to dignify a soda choice, the outraged citizen, the patient but stern counter attendant, the impatiently seated and impatiently standing, the police officers filling out paperwork in the back, and the lighter side of the experience, the helpful neighborhood tow.

Waiting for customers, tow truck drivers would greet the sullen faces as the arrived to the front doors. They stood and promise better prices, conversed with those outside smoking, and gave suggestions for the DMV with the fastest line. It would be naïve to interpret their presence as pure courtesy, but one would be daft not to notice the genuine concern for a fellow citizen, forced from their daily lives to such a dreadful experience. Nonetheless, the impound lot is part of city experience, and recognizes that, “It is futile to try to evade the issue of unsafe city streets by attempting to make some other features of a locality,” (Jacobs).

i apologize the image quality taken from google. I didn't have my phone nor camera when on site.

The Baltimore Free School

The Baltimore Free School is located at 1323 N. Calvert Street at the intersection of Mount Royal Avenue. The building sits on the edge of Midtown/Mount Vernon, one of Baltimore’s most gentrified neighborhoods, and at the cusp of the Station North Arts District, a community of vacant buildings recently slated for commercial redevelopment.  In addition, Greenmount West, one of Baltimore’s lowest income neighborhoods, lies only a block away. It is at the axis of these neighborhoods that the worker owned- collectively run Red Emma’s Bookstore and Coffeehouse has placed their newest venture.

This location opened on the first of this month (9.1.09) but in fact the Baltimore Free School has been in existence in some incarnation since Red Emma’s opened in 2007. Only now it is getting the time and space it deserves. This inclusive aspect of the open city is very self-aware. The creators of the Free School hosted a two-day conference this past March at the 2640 space, a multi use venue also run by Red Emma’s. The City From Below conference brought a multitude of lectures and workshops dealing with the city and how we might improve it. The Free School was one example of improvement.

The Baltimore Free School seeks to operate on the model of the Modern School. The Modern School movement (originally La Escula Moderna started in Spain) became popular in the United States in the early twentieth century. Modern Schools employ egalitarian methods of education in a non-capitalist, non-coercive, and class-conscious setting. Basically the Baltimore Free School believes that everyone has something to offer. And they do. The classes this month include: art classes for children, Taijiquan and Oigong, poetry, home energy conservation, how to be tobacco free, an overview of the fourth amendment, introduction to music theory, and clowning just to name a few.

Long term plans for classes include language classes (Spanish, Arabic, Russian, French, English as a second language) and extensive seminars. But really it could be anything. If you have a skill or an idea that you would like to share with fellow Baltimorians all you have to do is propose it to the Baltimore Free School.

Though multi use buildings adjacent to the school are lacking, it is arguable that a free education could do more to open the city than any collection of parks, restaurants, and shops ever could. MICA brings people together in an educational setting who come from a certain socio-economic background. North Ave, Gilford Ave, and Eutaw Street all serve as barriers between those who cant afford a higher education and those who can. The Free school can allow people to come together, not based on affluence or background, but simply on a common interest of learning a language or how to be a clown.

The free school is still in its infancy, so weather it will become an established aspect of Baltimore life and truly open the city is yet to be seen. I encourage all of you to support the free school by attending a class, or even proposing one.

Patterson Park and the Neighborhood

I feel like Patterson Park, adjacent to it Eastern Ave. , as well as surrounding areas represent some of “the open city” ideals and have a great potential to be a successful open city space.

Eastern Avenue area is a mixed-use and multi-ethnical part of the city. It is a very diverse neighborhood with Latino, Greek, Polish, and Ukrainian subcultures, which is also the same for the Highlandtown further to the east. In addition to multicultural aspect to the area there is a mixture of residential, business and institutional places such as Ukrainian church across the Patterson Park and a Youth Center near it. This creates a unique experience of multiple cultures in a small space and since there is no feeling of exclusion or separation, this space is very inviting.

Last year I walked from the Inner Harbor to this area to buy a couple things from a Polish store. I ended up walking into three Polish and one Greek store, which was a great experience of getting a feel for two different cultures in a matter of couple hours. Small family grocery stores were very welcoming and people in there were very friendly. I was offered samples of “the best Polish sausages” and other ethnic foods and found out one of the owner’s views on the current international relations of Eastern European countries. This kinds of experiences and interactions add variety to the everyday routine but, unfortunately, are absent in the Bolton Hill area where I live.

Ideally, Patterson Park as a park by itself is an open city space, but in the context of its neighborhood and some of the events that are being held there, it acts as an extension to the multi-ethnical aspect of the area. Many ethnic festivals, dance events and other activities are being held there, which engage the public in interaction and cultural experiences.

According to Young, "persons and groups interact within a space they all experience themselves as belonging to, but without those interactions dissolving into unity of commonness." This area is a great example of an open city where groups of people based on their ethnicity live together, except difference; mix to a certain degree and, in the same time keep own identity but, definitely, interact and stay open to everyone.

Mini-Parks within the City

In the Mt. Vernon area around the Washington Monument, Peabody Institute and the United Methodist Church, there are a series of parks that surround the Monument. In this area North Charles Street splits into 2 different lanes from Centre Street to Madison Avenue. These streets go around two parks and the Washington Monument in a circular pattern. Personally, I have always wanted to live in this area of the city, because of the beauty of well kept older buildings and cobblestone. I also love the fact that in the spring as you walk or drive down North Charles Street, when the Cherry Blossom trees are in full bloom you can see how great this city once was and how much pride they have in this beautiful area. Many people in this area are always taking advantage of the parks by either walking their dogs, resting on a bench, reading, eating at the café tables provided, relaxing on the lawn or listening to the students play music at the Peabody Institute.

This area should be thought of as an Open Space with in the city that keeps people coming back for more. Not only does it create a space for those who need green space for animals, but it creates a luxury for those who live near by to still enjoy green areas without having to tend to them themselves. I walk my dog 4 times in one park and occasionally bring my dog to the ‘dog park’ across the street from the Peabody Conservatory, where many of the other dog owners let their dogs off of the leash and mingle with others. This area is where many strangers meet with something in common. Even though many of us may not have personal things in common, one thing that ties us together is our dogs. Within this park I see dogs of all colors, shapes and sizes. My dog is a slender and very shy, Chihuahua and Poodle Mix. She seems to favor dogs that are not aggressive and announces that she is there by sniffing and sometimes even licking people’s legs as they walk by.

In these parks I see many Johns Hopkins students. Many of them live in the Waterloo Place apartments next to the Peabody Institute and take the John’s Hopkins shuttle to the Homewood Campus. A block away on Madison Avenue and St. Paul Street, is Red Emma’s, a book and coffee shop that houses many activist and social meetings. The Mt. Vernon park area is where many people of different backgrounds and ideas meet to enjoy the green open space. I’ve met homeless, Johns Hopkins students, Young Professionals, University of Baltimore Students, Activists, MICA students and dog owners in these parks. In a way it brings people together from different backgrounds because we all enjoy the are in which is not developed but always busy with activity, a place to call there own for only a few hours at a time with no obligation or commitment.