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State of the Arts: The arts helped bring Highlandtown from ‘impending doom’ to a new direction

Highlandtown, on the city’s east side near Canton and Butcher’s Hill, hasn’t enjoyed the status of “destination” in the same way some of its neighboring communities have.

The Creative Alliance, an arts promoter and venue helped create the Highlandtown Arts and Entertainment District in 2003, and continues to bring tourists and art enthusiasts to the neighborhood for art shows, concerts and classes. (Josh Cooper/The Daily Record)

But the artists who live there are trying to change that.

The most recent figures show the area is experiencing growth. A study by the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University found that, between 2008 and 2010, new businesses paid more than $800,000 in wages and contributed more than $200,000 to the tax base. The study also showed that of the $65,000 paid in non-residential property taxes in the district between 2008 and 2010, $56,700 came from businesses that were created over that same time period. Five years ago, the vacancy rate on Eastern Avenue was 30 percent. Now, that number is down to 14 percent.

Many of the early residents of the neighborhood lived there because of its proximity to industrial jobs. Eastern Avenue became a shopping destination, and the area flourished in the 1940s and 1950s.

As the jobs dried up and as the Beltway brought competition to the stores in the 1960s and 1970s, both the residential and commercial districts began to see suburban flight.

“There was this sense of impending doom,” said Megan Hamilton, co-founder and director of programming for the Creative Alliance, an arts promoter and venue.

Perry Sfikas, a state senator from 1995 to 2002 whose district included Highlandtown, developed a strategy to attract a new population to the neighborhood, including empty nesters, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people and artists. He credits the Creative Alliance, founded in 1995, for making the first move in this new direction for the neighborhood.

“Sure enough, they really took the initiative and ran with it,” said Sfikas.

The Creative Alliance has turned the old Patterson Theater into an art gallery, concert space, classroom and restaurant. It hosts an array of art exhibits, film screenings, concerts, lectures, classes and community outreach events.

“The [Creative Alliance] moving here certainly focused more attention on Highlandtown,” said artist Dan Schiavone, a Highlandtown resident and one of the founders of the Creative Alliance.

Many of the artists of Highlandtown are older and established. The safety and relative quiet of the neighborhood has tended to attract more veteran artists, many of whom have families and children.

Monica Broere, a sculptor and retired art teacher, said the community isn’t as reliant on a big anchor institution in the same way Station North is connected to the Maryland Institute College of Art.

“The arts here is a community inside a community,” Broere said. “More of a word-of-mouth thing or who-knows-who, instead of depending on an outside source to promote it.”

Part of the district populated by many artists is the industrial area near the train tracks on the east side of the neighborhood. The former Crown Cork and Seal building houses several artists’ studios, including those of Sondheim Fellows Tony Shore and Laure Drogoul.

In addition, many of the formerly vacant storefronts on Eastern Avenue have been filled by arts-related business in recent years, including Anthony’s Park Mobile Arts Center, Baltimore Threadquarters and TBD Gallery.

Chris Ryer, president of the Highlandtown Community Development Corp., said the arts have a key role to play in improving the neighborhood.

“I don’t think we’ll ever revitalize Highlandtown with a one-market strategy,” Ryer said. “We have to have a multi-market strategy, and arts is one of those.”

Read Part 4 of this series, on how the arts are changing the Bromo Tower area, by clicking here.

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

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