2007: What's Up, Baltimore?
Making Music in Charm City, ca. 2007
You have to climb countless graffiti-covered flights of stairs—or risk taking an ancient, fragile freight elevator—to get to Baltimore's Floristree Space. No need to remember what floor it's on, just follow the sounds of screaming guitars and frenetic drumming all the way to the top of the warehouse.
Inside, you'll see merch tables blocking off the residential portion of the space. Someone who likely lives behind those tables will ask you to pay the suggested donation for admission to tonight's show. The air will be thick with cigarette smoke as people stand around in groups or crowd the stage, drinking beer they brought themselves or taking sips out of flasks. Whether the music is discordant or melodic, electronic or acoustic, improvised or thoroughly rehearsed, a rapt audience will be assembled, dancing or nodding along approvingly.
At first, this may not seem so different from a quasi-legal warehouse show in any other city. But the Baltimore music community distinguishes itself in small, subtle ways. If a hometown band is performing, other local musicians will always be on hand to support their friends. And if the smoke has started to bother your throat, just ask a Floristree resident for some water and he'll lend you a measuring cup to drink from, as long as you promise to return it.
It is this sense of friendship and cooperation that defines the Baltimore music scene, a world that incorporates such divergent genres as punk, experimental, folk, hip-hop, and electronic music into one inclusive creative community. Recently, fans, journalists, and record labels across the country and around the world have begun to appreciate the city's diverse output. The hype, which began as excited whispering on blogs, websites, and in print publications as early as 2005, exploded into all-out celebration of Charm City early this year in the months leading up to the May 8th release of Dan Deacon's hyper-real electronic-dance album, Spiderman of the Rings. However, as the bands continue to flourish in the public eye, the city around them is changing. Property values are on the rise in neighborhoods where artists live and work, new businesses—both national chains and smaller ventures—are opening, and the future of Baltimore as a haven for musicians remains uncertain but full of possibilities.
Although rapper Naeem Juwan, better known as Spank Rock, now lives in Philadelphia, he hails from Baltimore and performs often in the city. It is still rare for rappers to share the stage with bands from the largely white indie world, but Juwan says things are different in Baltimore. "I've done shows with [Dan] Deacon, Yeasayer [who also are from Baltimore but now live in Brooklyn], The Deathset, and Ponytail," he says. "I'm a fan of them all, and they are receptive to what I do."
Baltimore is united by an energy more than a sound, explains Jeremy Hyman, drummer for the energetic noise-punk band Ponytail. Jason Urick, who lives in the Floristree building and mans the laptop for Wzt Hearts (pronounced "Wet Hearts"), agrees. "In a small community, even though the art you're making is different, there's a genuine respect." Everyone in Baltimore, he says, is rooting for everyone else's success.
Whether they grew up in Charm City, went to college there and decided to stick around after graduation, or moved from other cities on the advice of old friends, the low cost of living in the city is a major draw for musicians. Artists who would be unable to support themselves in New York – or even Philadelphia – can afford to carve out a living in Baltimore. Local musicians can subsist on part-time or freelance jobs, and those who work full-time often do so from home.
Bruce Willen, bassist for post-hardcore band Double Dagger, attributes Baltimoreans' experimental attitude to the fact that most people in the scene neither need nor expect to make money from their music. "For the most part, people don't make a living doing art," he says. "There's less competition and pressure." Since musicians don't need to worry about creating marketable music, they have greater room for innovation. "There is a mainstream pulse and an underground pulse," says Willen. "But Baltimore ignores all of that."
This pioneering spirit is palpable in the attitudes of many local musicians. Dustin Wong plays guitar in both Ponytail and Ecstatic Sunshine, a band that truly lives up to its name. Composed of two guitarists and an electronic musician, they sound something like a Japanese noise band imbued with California sunbeams. He describes Ponytail as "the kind of band I always wanted to be in," adding that it "opened up the idea of four people experimenting in a way I never knew before."
Like its bands, many of the city's music venues are a labor of love. Floristree, which has now been hosting performances for more than three years, runs entirely on donations and doesn't sell alcohol in order to avoid legal trouble. The money collected at the door covers expenses like toilet paper and cleaning supplies. A particularly profitable show might yield some new equipment to improve a stage show. Only once in Floristree's history has the venue earned enough money to contribute sizably to its rent. "We do shows for bands we like," claims Urick. He enjoys the space's community-oriented environment. "It's open, it's warm, it sounds good, it looks good, there are no bouncers running around."
Charm City Art Space (CCAS), a five-year-old, collective-run gallery and music venue in the city's Station North Arts District, which is in the process of obtaining official non-profit status, has a similar atmosphere. Performances are all-ages, donation-based, and the use of drugs and alcohol is strictly prohibited. Nolen Strals, Double Dagger's singer, organizes CCAS's gallery shows and is one of approximately 20 volunteers who book shows for the venue. Though he isn't paid for his work, he finds what CCAS does for the community particularly rewarding. "In all the years I've been involved there," he recalls, "one of the best things that happened is one 13-year-old kid asked me, 'So, where are the adults?' And I said, 'There aren't any.'" He explained that donations pay the space's rent and volunteers coordinate the events. "This kid's face just lit up. He was like, 'I could do this,'" Strals says.
Like Urick and Strals, who with Willen runs a successful graphic design firm called Post Typography that, among other work, designs posters for concerts throughout the city, most Baltimore musicians' involvement in the scene goes beyond just playing in bands. "It's a matter of necessity," says Dennis Bowen, Double Dagger's drummer, explaining that there are so few active members in the community that everyone needs to help each other out. Bowen was so excited when he heard about plans for CCAS that he and a friend showed up, even before the space opened, to help with renovations. Willen has observed that people are generous with their time in Baltimore. "People are more into helping each other out than eating each other's lunches," he says.
In addition to his work with Ponytail, Hyman hosts shows in his home at the Copycat warehouse, a building in the Station North neighborhood where many artists live and work. He is also part of Answer Your Own Question, a new group that sponsors free performances and lectures. Their first event featured local electronic artist Cex lecturing on "sad techno music," with a mix tape playing in the background to illustrate his points.
Though some artists like Deacon, dream-pop band Beach House, and the cabaret-influenced Celebration, as well as Ponytail, Ecstatic Sunshine, and Wzt Hearts are garnering press on the national level, the scene has remained fairly intact. Deacon still performs regularly in his hometown, though, as Baltimore's City Paper noted this fall, his exciting, interactive performances are "now so popular that they're almost no fun, as Deacon has to defend his table full of equipment from the rush of bodies."
Outside coverage of the local scene has been somewhat misleading, overlooking quite a few of the city's less commercially palatable bands. Justin Blemly, who runs a Baltimore-oriented webzine called [Beatbots-> http://www.beatbots.com], says many journalists are writing as though the Wham City collective, a group of musicians and artists of whom Deacon is the most famous member, with its brightly-colored, art school aesthetic, is the only thing going on in Charm City. They characterize Baltimore as a "kooky, kind of cartoon-y place," he says. "It casts Baltimore in this neon light." He has noticed that a lot of great bands that don't fit into this image, like the jazz-influenced Microkingdom and the guitar- and drum-heavy Thank You, aren't getting the media recognition he feels they deserve. "They never describe what's happening here because it can't be codified," says Strals.
Baltimoreans are quick to point out the way publications have misrepresented their community. Urick says the national media writes as though "all these bands live in a big Funland," all the while romanticizing the city's high crime rates and perceived danger. "They think we're all running around in bomb shelters," he says, laughing.
"Everyone is having fun! And nobody is scared," marveled Pitchfork Media writer Mike Powell at a performance at this year's Whartscape festival, a weekend-long Floristree event that included both well-known and obscure Baltimore bands. Locals wondered why he expected the audience to be afraid at an outdoor show, in broad daylight, in a neighborhood that is not particularly dangerous.
The truth, as Urick suggests, is that Baltimore, like most places, is somewhere between Funland and bomb shelter. The average individual income is almost $10,000 below the median for the state of Maryland [MD Dept of Business and Economic Development, 2006], and the city's murder rate—276 last year among a population of 637,556 people [FBI, 2006]—is always among the highest in the country. "Most people I know have gotten mugged at least once," says Wong.
But, due in large part to the combination of a low cost of living and the already strong arts community, Baltimore continues to attract young, creative people. In the last several years, neighborhoods like Hampden and the more recently named Station North Arts District have become popular places for a new generation of artists to live and work, replacing more established areas like Mt. Vernon and Fell's Point. These newcomers, and the galleries, music venues, and boutiques that have grown up around them, have began to make their once poor, unfashionable neighborhoods more desirable.
David Bielenberg, Executive Director of Station North Arts and Entertainment Inc. (SNAE), a non-profit organization that manages the District, attributes the area's newfound popularity to the many new arts venues that have opened in the past few years. Load of Fun, a community gallery and studio space; Lo-Fi Social Club, a live music club; and Metro Gallery, which houses a café and serves as an all-in-one center for visual art, film, and music, have all moved into the area since 2005.
But with increased desirability comes increased cost of living. Since 1998, the average home sale price in Hampden has almost quadrupled. In fact, the mean cost of a home in the area was $199,000 in 2006—$65,000 higher than it was only two years ago. The spike in Station North's housing prices has been even more extreme: While the average neighborhood dwelling sold for $94,883 in 2004, the figure had tripled to $299,900 by 2006 [Live Baltimore].
Community organizations, including the Station North Arts and Entertainment District and neighborhood associations, have noticed the rising prices. "We want to balance development and advancement by making sure the area stays affordable," says Bielenberg. They are pursuing affordable-housing designations for the live/work spaces in the area and are encouraging artists and musicians to buy property now, before it becomes impossible.
For many members of the arts community, it may be too late. Strals and his longtime girlfriend, both employed professionally in the creative sector, would like to buy a home in Baltimore and have children in the future. But with housing prices rising so rapidly, they've concluded it will be impossible to do both. "It's not a decision that either of us want to make," he says, "but we don't want to be living at the whim of a landlord for the rest of our lives."
Many feel prices have been artificially inflated by outside developers building high-end residences they can't fill, rather than creating housing for the poor and working-class people who populate Baltimore. Double Dagger address the phenomenon in a song called "Luxury Condos for the Poor," which City Paper named the best song of 2007. You're building a ghost town, sings Strals. If you lived here your whole life, it's time to get out / We're building waterfront gravesites 30 stories high / Where dreams of fictional people live / While the city around you dies.
Posh new condos have popped up in Charles Village, an area that also houses a number of local artists and musicians, along with families and students at nearby Johns Hopkins University. The developer, Streuver Brothers Eccles & Rouse, bought up and demolished houses on both sides of St. Paul Street to build the luxury residences. But because they have sold only a few of the units in the first building, they have yet to work on the second. The lot across the street sits empty, a giant mud puddle surrounded by a chainlink fence.
Blemly, who lives in Charles Village, is unhappy with the presence of condos and retail chains like Chipotle, Starbucks, and Cold Stone Creamery, housed on its ground floor. "I wanted to live in this neighborhood because it didn't have any of that," he says.
In Station North a company called PennLofts is advertising "a distinct and contemporary new community" comprised of 32 townhouses, each selling for $300,000-$500,000. "Even if every condo they built was a monumental success," says Hyman, who lives in the area, "you go five blocks in any direction and the poverty is immense."
Charlie Duff, Executive Director of the Midtown Development Corporation, a non-profit that, according to its website, seeks to "promote the continued revitalization and restoration of Midtown by assisting homebuyers and good developers with residential renovation projects," hopes this trend of poverty will soon be a thing of the past. And if artists and musicians are unable to afford homes in the areas they helped to develop, Duff sees the possibility as a natural side effect of the urban renewal process. "I not only think they will get priced out of some places but hope they will," says Duff, who also sits on the Station North Arts and Entertainment District's advisory board. "Baltimore has too few good neighborhoods and too many bad neighborhoods."
"Landlords aren't hiding the fact that we have five years," says Urick. While he acknowledges that Baltimore is years behind the curve of urban gentrification, he also realizes his days at Floristree, which exists in a still-unfashionable neighborhood, may be numbered. "This'll probably end up being a Starbucks," he muses.
But to many musicians, Duff's view is unrealistic. "I don't think the prices in Baltimore are going to go up as significantly as in the past few years," says Willen, calling the new development "hollow growth driven by investors." Because few people in the city can afford to pay expensive housing costs and the high crime rate and pervasive poverty makes Baltimore unattractive to outsiders, he speculates that the partially or wholly vacant luxury buildings run a good chance of remaining empty.
With the future unknown and new albums being released to critical fanfare on what seems like a weekly basis, the musicians of Baltimore have seemingly resolved to go on living and working without anxiety. "Until you can buy property and go legit," says Urick, "you have to live for today."
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