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In the 'hood: Station North Arts District

David Bielenberg, Ashley Wallace, and Joe McNeely in Station North - Arianne Teeple
David Bielenberg, Ashley Wallace, and Joe McNeely in Station North - Arianne Teeple

Follow Charles Street uptown towards North Avenue and you'll find yourself in Station North, the city's first arts and entertainment district, which encompasses the Charles North, Greenmount West, and Barclay communities. The neighborhood combines an artistic and alternative spin with the kind of familial neighborhood where psychological adventure comic artists, printmakers, and functional sculptors are the norm, not the exception.

Established in 2001, Station North spans 100 acres and includes a variety of taste bud arousing restaurants as well as edgy art and entertainment venues.  Drop by Sofi's Crepes on North Charles Street or catch a flick at the Charles Theatre.  Maybe throw back a drink at Club Charles or at the Windup Space, all the while taking in the work of upcoming artists and musicians.

The district's designation is geared to boost the redevelopment and revitalization of the community, David Bielenberg, executive director of Station North Arts & Entertainment, Inc., explains.  It enables the city to work with local business owners and residents to nourish and expand the local arts community and offer tax incentives to those looking to transform vacant properties into art venues and performance spaces.

A community of doers

The lure of Station North simply put is that the district shies away from the mainstream and predictable.  Visitors won't find the typical "he-got-famous-for-that?" type of museums. Instead they can check out innovative new work at one of the neighborhoods many independent art showplaces, like Westnorth Studio. Owned by artist Roy Crosse, the studio showcases the daring work of alternative artists working in a variety of fields including sculpture and videos. 

Station North is also not the place to find the predictable Broadway-style musical or run-of-the-mill play. It's home to several independent theaters with the Everyman Theater and Strand Theatre Company leading the way.  At the Strand, Artistic Director Jayme Kilburn spotlights works written by women, for women. The focus, says Kilburn, is her effort to do what she can to strengthen the influence of women in the theatre world.  Common themes and events include lesbian and heterosexual experiences, festivals and showcases for emerging female playwrights, and choreopoems (spoken poems set to music and choreography) that explore the similarities and differences of American females.

Kilburn was attracted to the area's friendly feel.  She typifies the do-it-yourself � DIY -- attitude that pervades the district, be it in terms of opening a business or creating an artistic masterpiece. 

"It means that a group of people or individuals are literally doing it themselves�building art from zero money and zero resources," Kilburn explains.  As founder of the Strand, Kilburn did everything that was necessary to launch the venue -- from filing it as a nonprofit to compiling lists of contacts taken from friends and other willing-to-help theaters.

It's the blood, sweat and tears, the main components of projects in the district, that have helped create such a tightly-knit community, one in which people do what they can to help each other.  "At the beginning it was very weird because friends would donate money and I felt like such a sham.  I didn't know if it was going to work out," she states.

But despite her (very laborious) effort, Kilburn notes that it's all paid off as the theater's audience continues to grow.  "The best part is seeing how far we've come.  Every once in a while we'll get an e-mail from a woman artist or playwright and she'll say what we're doing is really important.  It inspires me."

Mixing it up creatively

The DIYness of the community keeps the area's creative juices -- well, so gosh darn creative . 

"I lived in Portland for about a year, and I can safely say that a sense of community is not something that every city possesses. Station North has a close-knit community advantage that makes it so much more inclusive," says Jordan Bernier whose lived in Station North for over eight years and a resident of the Copy Cat building (a designated warehouse in the district in which artists both live and work) for about four months. 

Bernier, a Maryland Institute Collegeof Art grad, experiments with as many mediums as possible, including 35 mm photos,  Polaroids, video, and functional sculptures that combine skateboarding and art to form large wooden ramps. He's constantly pushing both the boundaries of the art world as well as his own.  "I made a painting for the whack-a-mole project for the Transmodern Festival. I usually never make paintings," he says.

Bernier says that the DIY spirit is inspirational. "If no venues are showing the music you like, make your own venue. If no theatres are showing the plays you want to see, make your own theatre. If no galleries are showing the art you like to see, make your own gallery."

The why-not-try-it attitude extends into the artists work as well.

"We tend not to limit ourselves to one particular medium. It isn't uncommon to see artists who might be typecast as musicians making drawings or paintings one day," says Bernier, "that being said, the medium that I have had the most experience with is printmaking, which includes both bookmaking and screen printing."

And at the end of the day, what does Kilburn, 29, think of the DIY state of mind?  "It's sexier because it's spur of the moment and usually free," she says.

Creativity is infectious

Joe Squared, located in the 100 block of North Avenue, also adds unexpected flavor to the Station North district with its quirky plates piled high with shrimp and green bean risotto, fish cheese steaks, and chocolate-walnut buffalo wings.  As tantalizingly, high-end as these menu items may sound, Joe Squared is not some frou-frou restaurant. In fact, it's reputation has been built on its award-winning, square-shaped (and sometimes herb infused) sourdough pizzas baked in Maryland's only coal-fired pizza oven, topped with anything from maple-smoked bacon and clams to corned beef and potatoes.

In November 2005, owner Joe Edwardson saw the opportunity to open a restaurant and bar in the area that boasted little more than a McDonald's franchise, a rundown motel, a check cashing place and a few other fast food restaurants.  Joe Squared was the first venue of its type in the area and Edwardson one of the first business owners to take a chance on the area.  "There was really no Station North per se," he says, "I found the place as a blank slate, to do what I wanted."  

Five years later, Joe Squared is far from a blank slate, that's for certain.  Hungry pizza lovers can take in art exhibits that change up every month and listen to up-and-coming Baltimore-based bands perform several nights a week. 

The place makes no commission on the art shows, and there's no cover at the door for live music shows, either.  Musicians are instead paid solely by the profits of the restaurant.  "I never intended to make any money.  I'm happy if we break even," says Edwardson as he laughs.

Build it and they will come

Over the past five years, the district has grown organically as Joseph McNeely, executive director of the Central Baltimore Partnership, points out.  "The underground is coming above ground and we're trying to enhance it," he says noting that the mission of the partnership is to support the area's residents and businesses, rather than try to organize it.

Developers have embraced the area building a variety of new housing and renovating old buildings specifically for local artists. Business owners are rehabbing long vacant properties and opening galleries, entertainment venues and restaurants.

While some may be skeptical about the development, the neighborhood is filled with supporters and behind-the-scenes miracle workers who believe in the growth and development of the area.  "Growth is something I see here and something I will hopefully see into fruition," says Ashley Wallace, community planner.

Westnorth Studio's Crosse shares here optimism. "I live here.  You can complain about how bad things are or you can do something about it," he says, explaining why he opened the gallery and continues to contribute to the community.

Crosse welcomes newcomers to both his studio and the Station North district with open arms.  He urges others to experience the artistic energy of the community, firsthand.  "You have to come here to understand.  It's like saying I have a beautiful daughter, but that doesn't mean anything unless you've seen her."

Like Bernier, Tim Paggi is also a resident of an artist living and working space, the Annex Theater.  Stroll past the corner of Oliver and Greenmount where the theater stands, and you might find Paggi collaborating with other artists on experimental theatre, music, literature, and art.

"The vibe is--how should I say? Magical," says Paggi, "magic facilitates my growth because it enhances my ability to manipulate reality according to my own vision of it."

Melody Often, resident and psychological comic artist, adds, "There is a lot of potential in this area and some very promising intentions that, with the right funding and encouragement, could cause an even more amazing bloom."

Station North has the right elements that have combined in an increasingly successful formula that promises continued success for the area�residents, artists, business owners, and community leaders are all rooting for and supporting it.  What's in the cards for the future?  For the sake of originality and creative freedom, let's hope that, with continued support, the district will continue its exponential growth as the home of the brave and the artistic.

Got a comment? Let us know what you think about Station North on Twitter, Facebook or send us an email. You can also read more about what's going on in Station North.

David Bielenberg; Station North Arts & Entertainment, Inc., Ashley Wallace; Community Planner (VISTA) and Joe McNeely; Exec Director, Central Baltimore Partnership pose for a portrait in the Station North Arts District - Photo by Arianne Teeple
Artist Roy Crosse, owner, of the Westnorth Studio - Photo by Arianne Teeple
An installation entitled "The Wailing Wall" by Roy Crosse, owner, of the Westnorth Studio - Photo by Arianne Teeple
The Strand Theater Company in Station North - Photo by Arianne Teeple
Joe Squared restaurant in Station North - Photo by Arianne Teeple
Pizza at Joe Squared restaurant in Station North - Photo by Arianne Teeple
Patrons at Joe Squared restaurant in Station North - Photo by Arianne Teeple

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