Exterior of the Cork Factory Building

Cork Factory, 1601 Guilford Avenue, Baltimore, Maryland

The creation of Baltimore's Station North Arts and Entertainment District in 2002 allowed a preexisting community of artists and activists to legally occupy live-work art studios in a cluster of formerly industrial buildings west of Greenmount Cemetery. By leveraging a statewide economic development initiative, these artists worked collectively to gain exemption from the city's antiquated zoning regulations and successfully reclassify themselves from squatters to legal inhabitants of the city's first official arts and entertainment district. As the first generation of legally recognized live-work artists in Station North is currently reaching retirement age, they are willing to share their experiences regarding city planning, culture-led revitalization, and the pattern of gentrification in artists' enclaves.

Robert "Bob" Levine moved to Baltimore in 1983, a ceramic artist looking to live closer to his market in New York, but somewhere affordable enough he could continue to make his art. Between 1983 and 1997, Bob rented a 3,200 square foot space at 1601 Guilford Avenue, a former Cork Crown and Seal Company factory building. During this period, small businesses in building—including a printing press, a staple company, and a furniture refinishing shop—moved out and their spaces became occupied by visual artists. Without legal occupancy permits, however, these artists were in constant jeopardy of being kicked out of their studios and their homes. Artists living and working in adjacent warehouses in this area of the Greenmount West community faced similar challenges. 

During his time as a renter at 1601 Guilford Avenue, also known as the Cork Factory, Bob Levine invested his own funds into the renovation of his space and acted as a general building manager. When the building's owner offered to sell him the property, Levine assembled a group of ten artists to buy the Cork Factory collectively. This collective took the form of a limited liability corporation, known as the Guilford Avenue LLC. The 33,000 square foot building was purchased in 1997 for $200,000. The artists who collectively purchased the building have developed their own guidelines for maintenance of communal spaces, the buying and selling of individual spaces within the building, and the resolution of disputes within the collective. 

The Guilford Avenue LLC continued to face the challenge of owning a former factory building still zoned for industrial, non-residential use. Levine identified the state of Maryland's creation of formal arts and entertainment districts as an opportunity to legalize residential living. This strategic leveraging of a statewide initiative to encourage the municipal zoning department to act in favor of the arts community shows political sophistication and collective agency on the part of local artists. Although the arts community expected the state's designation to be awarded to another neighborhood, Levine and others from the Cork Factory, the Copycat, and Area 405 worked together to create their own proposal. In 2002, their efforts earned them the distinction of being named Baltimore's first arts and entertainment district, known as Station North.

With the state's official arts district designation in place, the process of working with city government to create a zoning exemption was expedited by a liaison from mayor's office, Kirby Fowler. Fowler worked with Station North artists, including Bob Levine, Dennis Livingston, Al Zaruba, Michael Johnson, and Jim Vose to create the plans for a PUD, or Planned Unit Development. The process of creating the PUD involved identifying a group of contiguous buildings to be included, undergoing inspections to meet housing, building, and fire codes, and the approval of the Baltimore City Council. The success of this process granted legal occupancy permits to resident artists of Station North buildings, including the Cork Factory, Copycat, and Area 405 in 2003.

Bob Levine achieved his goal of creating collective, legal, and sustainable artists' live/work space in the Cork Factory through the creation of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District. The area, which now has tax benefits and a nonprofit organization to promote it, recently celebrated its ten-year anniversary with a celebration attended by Governor Martin O'Malley and filmmaker John Waters. The city's popular arts festival, Artscape, expanded its boundaries in 2008 to include the Station North area. Street banners and an enormous Station North billboard atop the Copycat building demarcate the district from surrounding neighborhoods. Renovation and new construction projects are currently underway, making the existence and evolution of Station North undeniable.

Although some critics have been wary of the potential for gentrification and displacement within the area, Levine is confident in the planning, safeguards, relationships, and collaboration that ensure the sustainability of artists' space in Station North. The ability of districts within urban areas to remain stable in the face of social and economic forces of decline or gentrification is part of larger and more complex discussions within urban planning and policymaking. Bob Levine emphasized artists' awareness of the "SoHo effect"—a process of economic displacement that starts with artists' occupation of an area, followed by successive waves of redevelopment and price escalation. By actively organizing to purchase their spaces, gain community support, establish relationships with civic leaders, and create legally designated arts districts, the artists of Station North acted with impressive savvy as political actors in city affairs. 

Written by Aiden Faust, November 28, 2012