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Baltimore: Open City

Latest Exhibition Development Seminar examines Baltimore’s user experience

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Gaia’s “The Legacy Project: Robert Moses”

Quick thought experiment: When you left your home (apartment, whatever) to go to work (school, whatever) this morning, what did you see? The walkway from your front door to the sidewalk? Were your neighbors’ cars still parallel parked on the one-way street? Do you follow the same path to get to the bus stop (subway stop, light rail shelter, shuttle stop, whatever)? Or are you fortunate enough to be able to walk or bike to work? If so, do you use the most direct route, or do you have a particular path that you feel is, well, more user-friendly?

The world right outside your front door is worth pondering only because sometimes what we see every day can become what we’re blind to through familiarity. Chances are, you live where you live for a variety of reasons: economic, social, cultural, etc. Perhaps you live where you live because it’s close to work (or school), or close to a way to get to school/work by public transportation, or is located in the ideal school district for your children, or provides the ideal home/work multiuse space. All the factors that went into that decision play into the other decisions you make: where you go to buy groceries and household supplies, where and how you go out socially, where and how you get around at night. These are all things we take into consideration, sometimes actively, sometimes as passively as reading an address and knowing what that block of that street is like in Baltimore.

Baltimore: Open City wants you to think about those issues too, only through a slightly different prism. The 2010-’11 installment of MICA’s Exhibition Development Seminar—the student-run and -curated class that has mounted creative, big-idea shows nearly each spring since 1997—looks at Baltimore through the prism of “openness,” a term used loosely here to examine the equality of socioeconomic access to what an urban environment can offer its residents. This year’s EDS class was led by urban planner Daniel D’Oca—MICA adjunct professor of urban history and theory, Harvard School of Design design critic in Urban Planning and Design—who is also a co-founder of Interboro, the New York consortium of architects, urban designers, and planners that has helped advocate for this idea of an “open city” (see: the 2009 mural project “The Open City Pops Up Where and When You Least Expect It”). Working in partnership with a scattering of local organizations and professionals (Historian in Residence Antero Pietila, the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance-Jacob France Institute, design hybrids D:center Baltimore and Dale Glenwood Green of Green and Tice, Thomas L. Hollowak of the University of Baltimore’s Langsdale Library, and the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Africana Studies’ East Baltimore Oral History Project), the 29 EDS students researched the local and national politics and economics behind Baltimore’s development history in an effort to understand the why and how of the way Baltimore is today.

The results of that legwork can be seen in the improvised exhibition space of the North Avenue Market just west of the intersection of North Avenue and Charles Street, and it’s a crash course in Baltimore’s thorny and conflicted urban policy. Thirty-one projects/objects/ideas came out of this research, from interactive models of the city to variations on the Game of Life with players’ paths dependent on whether he or she was born in Ruxton or Barclay, along with two months of panels, discussions, film series, workshops, walking tours, and off-site events. The breadth of the exhibition’s scope is best witnessed in a single, wall-eating timeline of Baltimore’s history, from 1800 to 2000, that tracks how the city became the one in which we live today in terms of housing, historical events, facts and figures, transportation, and development. Walking through history, your eye catches factoids that tell a story in miniature—1950: Baltimore’s population peaks at 949,708 while Baltimore County’s population that year is 220,273, with only 18,026 African-Americans; by 1964, Baltimore County’s African-American population had fallen to 16,580, while its overall population more than doubled to 541,600—that gets interwoven into the bigger socioeconomic narrative of a city undergoing rapid postwar change.

To read Baltimore: Open City, however, merely as this crucible of researched facts interpreted is to misunderstand its ambition. Yes, the EDS students and mentors have assembled a rather impressive assortment of perhaps nontraditional art objects and ideas and placed them in something like an exhibition setting. But that setting also feels like a meeting place and social laboratory for a reason, just as the class decided to include and honor specific people and organizations who have fought to change the face of the city. There’s an unmistakable activist streak running through every facet of the Open City enterprise, and it’s an undercurrent that gives the exhibition a certain tragic sincerity: This exhibition is practically a rally cry for people to give a shit about where they live.

It’s a topic running through many streams of popular discourse these days, because it affects so much of what besets cities like Baltimore. In the January 2011 issue of the online magazine Guernica, Wayne State University Assistant Professor John Patrick Leary eloquently and quite pointedly responded to recent streams of Detroit gawking, wherein the city has become almost a stand-in for urban American tragedy writ large. His essay specifically addresses photography books that traffic in urban decay tourism, but parts of it feel eerily prescient to any resident of any former hub of American manufacturing that has to deal with people who say things such as “ruin porn” and see beauty in decay without bothering to recognize the obvious collateral damage in human capital that produced it.

But of course, no photograph can adequately identify the origins for Detroit’s contemporary ruination; all it can represent is the spectacular wreckage left behind in the present, after decades of deindustrialization, housing discrimination, suburbanization, drug violence, municipal corruption and incompetence, highway construction, and other forms of urban renewal have taken their terrible tolls. Indeed, what is most unsettling—but also most troubling—in Moore’s photos is their resistance to any narrative content or explication. Moore’s shot of a grove of birch trees growing out of rotting books in a warehouse might be a sign of Detroit’s stubborn persistence, as the Detroit poet Philip Levine argues a bit too optimistically in his accompanying essay, but it could easily be a visual joke on the city’s supposed intellectual and physical decrepitude, a bad joke that does not need repeating. One often finds oneself asking of Detroit Disassmbled [sic], The Ruins of Detroit, and indeed all ruin photographs, first, “What happened?” followed swiftly by, “What’s your point?”

The familiarity of the “what’s your point?” question above should raise the ire of Baltimorons who have to deal with similar misunderstandings about their home all the time. It’s that feeling that made you roll your eyes when Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III told attendees of the January Amplify Baltimore conference that The Wire was a “smear on this city that will take decades to overcome,” as if the decades of institutional neglect that spawned the situations depicted in a freaking TV show weren’t part of that story at all. It’s that queasy feeling you got when you read about a New York-based web site coming to town to shoot an installment of a program titled Young, Broke and Beautiful, and that future episodes were planned for Detroit, Memphis, New Orleans, and San Diego. It’s that aggravation that makes the eyes twitch when technocrats talk about eliminating the city’s digital divide as a strategy for economic development when it sometimes feels like there’s nothing but service jobs in this entire city.

So what’s the point? Baltimore: Open City feels like it wants to be another stab in trying to answer that question. The point isn’t merely to recognize the story of a place. The point isn’t simply to be aware of how things got that way and be able to say, “This is why that’s fucked.” The point isn’t to be able to talk about the issues and dilemmas facing a postindustrial urban polity in a cataclysmic 21st-century economy while sitting around a farm-to-table restaurant sipping local, organic, sustainable fancy shit. Maybe the point is to make the decision to imagine what might or even could be different. Maybe the point is to try to figure out if you’re willing to put any effort into changing the what, why, and how of the city in which you live—starting with the great unknown right outside your front door.

The Night Lights with Sky Space Project takes place May 13 at 9 p.m. in Greenmount West. For more information visit Baltimore: Open City’s closing reception runs 7-9 p.m. May 15 at the former North Avenue Market.

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