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State of the Arts: How the arts are changing perception, reality around North Avenue

On the corner of Charles Street and North Avenue, in a florist’s shop that has been in that location for 30 years, sits Vander Pearson, answering phones and taking orders.

A sign denoting the Station North Arts and Entertainment District sits atop the Copycat Building, a former industrial warehouse that has been re-purposed for use as artist housing. (Josh Cooper/The Daily Record)

Three blocks south on Lanvale Street, Dane Nester is trying to set up the wireless Internet in a cafe that he opened just days before, in late winter.

These two businessmen, though Pearson’s Florist and Cafe Sage bear few similarities, said they’re both benefiting from the revitalization of the Station North area — a transformation they say has everything to do with the arts.

“There are a lot of people producing stuff around here. It’s a community of producers, and I’m really happy to be able to work with them and partner with them,” said Nester.

Pearson said he’s watched the area change before his eyes.

“There’s still problems in this area,” Pearson said. “But I see a big difference between how it is now and how it used to be.

The Station North neighborhood has for years had a reputation as a dangerous area. At one time, it was a major hub for the drug trade and the criminal activity that comes with it.

Today, the neighborhood isn’t free of crime. The Baltimore City Police Department reported 345 crimes that took place in Station North in 2008 and 389 in 2012. Most were theft from vehicles.

“If you’re like me, you’ve been driving past North Avenue all of your life and averting your eyes — it’s sort of like driving past a car wreck and you feel guilty if you look at it,” said Charlie Duff, a real estate developer who owns several properties in the area.

Ben Stone, the executive director of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, said he is seeing a change in how people think about the area.

“People hear ‘North Avenue’ and they immediately say, ‘No way. I’m not going anywhere near that, not living near that, not working near that,’” Stone said.

Stone said younger people who are moving into Baltimore, however, don’t necessarily have those associations.

“North Avenue, to a [Maryland Institute College of Art] undergrad now is probably thought of as a great place to go to get pizza or to go see jazz music. … That turnover has been quite important for changing the district.”

The latest available figures seem to demonstrate this. A study by the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University found that, between 2008 and 2010, new businesses — created in those years — paid out more than $817,000 in wages and contributed more than $240,000 to the tax base.

The study also found that of the nearly $141,000 paid in non-residential property taxes in the district between 2008 and 2010, more than $66,000 came from those new businesses. About 47 percent of the economic activity in the district is due to recently opened businesses.

What does all this add up to? Small changes, but meaningful ones for residents, Duff said. He envisions a future where people can get out of their cars and walk through the city without having to ask, “Where’s safe?”

“You’re going to be able to walk from Fort McHenry to Guilford and be in good neighborhoods all the way, and that’s going to be true in five years, and that’s going to be true because of the artists of Station North,” said Duff.

“They’re going to take the worst part of the Charles Street spine and turn it into a place that is fun and safe and full of things to do, and every one of us is going to use it and like it.”

Read Part 3 of this series, on how the arts are changing the Highlandtown area, by clicking here.

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Below is an interactive map showing the boundaries of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, and its key arts assets.