Highlights from the interview with Bob Levine

Portrait of Bob Levine and Kate Thomas

On Coming to the Cork Factory

AF: Could you just tell me a little bit about how you first came to live at 1601 Guilford?

BL: Yeah. I was a ceramic artist since 1974. From 1974 through 1983, I was living in the country, on the farm, making ceramic art, and decided I needed to be closer to my market, which was in New York City. Baltimore was about as close as I could get to New York City and afford the space. I lived in a temporary place before I moved here. A friend was taking a training for six months, so I took over their house and made it into a studio.

Then I’d heard about this place from a friend and they were renting it—it was owned by a printing company, Weant Press—what’s now the Cork Factory.

But then it was owned by Weant Press, and there were a whole bunch of different businesses in here, ranging from furniture refinishing to a staple company to a wax museum figure-making place to… I think MICA [Maryland Institute College of Art] had a studio in here, that I’m not sure they were using at the time, but they had it at one point.

There was a cabinetmaker in here. I knew the cabinetmaker and a space became available. This had been a furniture refinishing studio that I was in. They were renting it and they were renting it really cheap, but it would have required—just as a rental—to put a lot of money into it to make it into a studio. But because it was so cheap and so large—3,200 square feet for around $400 a month—I was willing to take the risk. I had a five year lease and put about $15,000 into it and made it into a live/work space.

Audio clip from oral history interview with Bob Levine

On Creating the District and Legalizing Occupancy

AF: As far as city government is concerned, and the process of rezoning this building for live/work space, how did that get started?

BL: A lot of the spaces across the street in the Copy Cat Building, which was also part of Crown Cork and Seal, got occupied by fairly activist artists. One of them was David Crandall at the time. There was an entity that the state was creating called an arts and entertainment district. They created it with the idea that it was going to go to Highlandtown, where the Creative Alliance is. They tailored it right to them. And David Crandall initiated this procedure of, “Why should it go to them? It’s got to be competitive, so why don’t we compete for it?”

So Dennis Livingston and I and Al Zaruba and a whole bunch of other people—Jim Vose, some other people that are no longer in the area, Michael Johnson, who had a theater in sort of a funky building on North Avenue, and some people who weren’t active in it, but signed petitions, like Buzz Cusack, who owns the Charles Theatre—decided to make an effort to get that designation for ourselves. When it came up to the presentation, we made the presentation effective, a very dramatic presentation that we were actually the place that artists were living, so we should where the arts and entertainment district was. And so we actually got the first designated arts and entertainment district.

Once we became the arts and entertainment district, then it became clear to the City that the zoning department would have to make some way for the artists to actually live here legally, because when you broke it down, everybody who was living here was a squatter. So we worked with the zoning department. They were very cooperative and we had some help from the Mayor’s office in the form of Kirby Fowler. I’m not sure what he’s head of right now. I think it’s the Downtown Business Development District. I’m not positive what it is. [Note: Kirby Fowler is President of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, Inc. and the Executive Director of the Downtown Management Authority.] But he’s a mover and shaker in this type of activity.

We met with the zoning department. It was kind of clear that all these buildings were zoned M-1, which is just for manufacturing. So nobody was actually legally allowed to live here. In Maryland, there is no live/work designation. Even office residential is not—you can’t live and work in the same place. So the way you get around it is you create what are called PUDs—Planned Unit Developments. And what a PUD is, it’s a City Council bill, where the City Council assesses an exemption from the normal zoning, and approves it or disapproves it. If they approve it, the PUD exists.

So a PUD, the Planned Unit Development, has to be made up of buildings that are contiguous to each other. So we had to enlist all of the buildings in the whole district in order to create this PUD. And essentially it allows us to do whatever we want to do, within reason. It’s specified, as long as we meet the housing, fire, and building codes. So we had to get approved by all of those. So once we did that, we got the inspectors in, and Kirby Fowler was very helpful in coordinating all of that. We were the first building that was approved, that got its occupancy permit.

Audio clip from oral history interview with Bob Levine

On Neighborhood Change

AF: From the perspective where you sit today, how do you really feel about your role in this community, and also looking ahead, as far as the evolution of this area?

BL: Well, I think the effect is when I was first living here, when Kate [Thomas] and I were first living here, until people started moving into the Copy Cat building, the neighborhood was actually pretty dangerous. We would get our cars broken into all the time, and stolen a number of times. We’d be calling about gunfights that you could actually see out the windows. Then, as the artists moved in, and they were up all hours of the night, that started to change.

Gradually, over time, things have really changed. People are now more willing to come here to go to these studios, more willing to go to the Charles Theatre, they’re even willing to go to some of the theaters that are on North Avenue. And that was kind of unheard of.

The gentrification issue, the SoHo effect, has been talked a lot about by everybody here. And it’s something that we are trying to prevent. We have that a certain amount of the housing is designated for Section 8 housing. So that, in a way, prevents some of it from happening.

[Phone rings – interview pauses]

But the community association and the Station North Arts Association want to prevent that, because we don’t want to be in the situation where the artists can’t afford to be here. So we’re happy that the property values are going up, but we don’t want them to start skyrocketing and having it so that we can’t live here, that it’s only going to be women’s clothing stores and theaters. We want to keep it.

Audio clip from oral history interview with Bob Levine