Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Bmore Historic

I'm looking forward to this Friday's Bmore Historic "unconference," a daylong, participant-led series of conversations about "public history, historic preservation, and community development."

I've proposed a session on neighborhood vibrancy, just as a way of getting people's thoughts about what that means and how to make it happen.

Other proposed sessions include "Instant Living History," "Place-Based Local History," "Mapping Place: Experiments in Digital and Spatial Humanities."

I have no idea what that last one means. But it sounds pretty wicked.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Red Stars

Legend has it that sometime in the 1800's, Baltimore's ladies of the evening painted red stars on the sidewalks in Fells Point, as a means of leading visiting sailors to the dens of ill repute.

While I cannot affirm the veracity of this story (a cursory Google search yielded attestations that were not exactly scholarly), I've always been charmed by the idea of sailors - newly arrived in port with their, er, guns primed - eagerly pursuing a trail of iniquitous bread crumbs through the gloomy, reeking dockside streets toward the promise of bare shoulders, ample bosoms, and, most likely, an early, syphilitic death.

When I first arrived in Baltimore in the eighties, the sidewalks of Fells Point still boasted numerous examples of the fabled red stars. Today their numbers are diminished. The star above is one of three that still exist on Ann Street, between Pratt and Gough.

So here's a toast to those randy seafarers of yore and those Baltimore working girls for whom they yearned during those frightening, harsh, and lonely nights on the Atlantic. When the last of the red stars is gone, may their ghosts still find the right door.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

[VERB] Baltimore: Harnessing the Power of Homegrown Ideas

The following is a post I wrote for the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers blog. Since that site is viewable to members only, I'm reposting the entry here, with permission.

Full disclosure: I participated in an early discussion about identifying IBB presenters.


Over 75 people crowded the Windup Space in the Station North Arts District on May 26 to listen to 15 speakers present their ideas about how to make Baltimore a better place to live and work. Titled "Ignite for a Better Baltimore” (IBB), the event was the brainchild of Kate Bladow, a nonprofit technology consultant, and Alex Rinsler, a campaign and project manager who currently works for Feats, Inc.

As a member of the Baltimore Community Foundation (BCF) investment team, I attended IBB because I was eager to hear local thinkers and doers (including several BCF grantees) present unconventional approaches to building on the city's assets and overcome its pressing problems.

The roster of speakers at IBB featured: tech entrepreneur Mike Subelsky, who spoke of the need to harness the energy and ideas generated by gatherings like IBB as a way of increasing Baltimore's tax base; social enterprise pioneer John Herron of Harbor City Services , who challenged aspiring social entrepreneurs to balance their organizations' social missions with the bottom line; Alissa Richardson, a Morgan State University professor who researches the behavior of the "millennial generation;” and Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance executive director J. Buck Jabaily, who described new pathways and obstacles in Baltimore's arts and culture landscape.

IBB keynote speaker Mike Subelsky

Other IBB speakers included:
Reverend Heber Brown III - Pastor, Pleasant Hope Baptist Church
Peter Bruun - Artist and Art Educator; Contractor, Art on Purpose
John Campagna - Managing Partner, Restore Capital
Megan Hamilton - Program Director, Creative Alliance
Geoff Livingston - Partner & Co-Founder, Zoetica
John Shepley - Vice President, Emory Knoll Farms
Jill Sorensen - Executive Director, Baltimore-Washington Electric Vehicle Initiative
Jack VandenHengel - Executive Director, Shepherd's Clinic
Tracy Ward - Publisher, Urbanite
Tong Zhang - Chief Innovations Officer, Incentive Mentoring Program

[Videos of all of these speakers' presentations can be viewed on IBB's YouTube channel.]

IBB organizers Bladow and Rinsler met through Bmore Smart, a networking group for social entrepreneurs in Baltimore. Members meet monthly to learn about startup organizations and attempt to connect them with resources. In developing the idea for IBB, Bladow and Rinsler chose to make the event a spinoff of Ignite Baltimore, a regular series of short talks in which speakers get five minutes and 20 PowerPoint slides each to present an idea. Ignite, in turn, was inspired by the TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) conferences that have gained worldwide attention in recent years.

Bmore Smart, Ignite, IBB, and similar gatherings (including Create Baltimore, Amplify Baltimore, Innovate Baltimore, and TEDx Baltimore, among others) are part of a growing trend of local events that bring together a cross-section of area residents representing the arts, creative, tech and nonprofit communities. Attendees are mostly social media-savvy twenty- and thirty-somethings who wish to explore collaborative, cross-disciplinary ways of improving the quality of life in the region.

As a grantmaker, one of my only criticisms of these gatherings is their lack of follow-through. The speakers are energetic, their ideas frequently inspiring, and the crowds enthusiastic, but while the events provide presenters and attendees with good networking opportunities, there tends to be little in the way of tangible outcomes. With IBB, organizers Bladow and Rinsler sought to address this.

"Our hope was that people would walk away having met a person who could help them with an idea,” says Bladow, 31. "We specifically brought together speakers who could connect people. We intend to do some follow up, [to] reach out to people after the event, figure out what the next steps are.”

One of the most memorable IBB presentations was by Rebekah and Justin Kuk, a young couple who stumbled almost inadvertently into providing affordable housing for homeless people in West Baltimore. Having recently moved to Bolton Hill, they were struck by the number of homeless people they encountered while on their regular bike excursions through Fells Point. The Kuks struck up conversations with their homeless neighbors. Before long, they were helping to connect their new acquaintances with food and other resources.

Troubled by the lack of affordable housing available to people in extreme poverty, Rebekah and Justin bought and renovated a five-bedroom house in Reservoir Hill in order to provide affordable rental housing to individuals transitioning from homelessness to stability. The couple now has plans to connect renters to vocational training, job placement, and other services.
From their talk, it was clear that Rebekah and Justin have compassion, intelligence, and energy to spare; what they lack are technical knowledge and resources. Following their presentation, I approached them and offered to help them think about strategies to sustain and expand their project. We have a meeting scheduled for next week.

Bladow expressed her satisfaction that such an interaction arose from IBB. "That's exactly sort of connection that this event was designed to foster,” she says, adding that speaker Alissa Richardson and web designer Mike Brenner are collaborating on the development of a video game camp for children.

Events like IBB, the regular Ignite series, Create Baltimore, TEDx, etc. offer local funders abundant opportunities to tap into the passion, intelligence, and innovative thinking among Baltimore's burgeoning "creative class.”

While obviously not all ideas are ripe for funding, these gatherings can expose grantmakers to diverse groups of talented professionals who are committed to building on Baltimore's strengths and surmounting its challenges.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"Uh..Line?" A N00b Dips His Toes in Acting

Sometime back in late 2009, when I was newly divorced and adjusting to unfamiliar bachelorhood, I was whining to my friend Carly about my need to find something to do with my free time that didn't involve: a) drinking myself into a stupor; or b) re-watching the entire series run of Battlestar Galactica in my underwear while eating baked beans directly out of the saucepan.

She suggested, somewhat to my surprise, that I consider getting involved with local theater. I found the notion intriguing, as I do quite a bit of public speaking as part of my day job and I love films and plays, but I have always considered myself more of an enthusiastic audience member than an actor. In any event, the last time I acted in a play was when I was nine years old and I played my school's headmaster with a lot of talcum powder to whiten my hair. The performance was a hit with my classmates. The headmaster was less than amused.

The idea stayed in my head, however, and a few months later I volunteered to participate in a staged reading of a short play written by another friend, Peter Davis, as part of a series produced by the Playwrights Group of Baltimore. The show was performed at the Strand Theater in May of last year, and was followed by an invitation to do the readings at the Kennedy Center's Page to Stage festival.

Going from idle conversation in a cafe to acting at the Kennedy Center (admittedly not on the main stage, but still) was surprising and thrilling. Beyond the novelty of the experience, though, was the unexpected pleasure of meeting and working alongside a group of men and women for whom acting is a vocation, not a dodge. The passion, intelligence, and discipline they brought to their craft was inspiring.

I discovered that most of these actors were in their mid-to-late-twenties and many of them are associated with Glass Mind Theatre, which was named "Best New Theater" by Baltimore's City Paper in 2010. I attended a couple of GMT shows and even interviewed its associate artistic director, Sarah "Flash" Gorman, for this blog back in March. When the opportunity arose this year to audition for GMT's spring production, 'Brainstorm, Vol. 2: Baltimore Mixtape,' I thought, 'oh, what the hell.'

Here are the things that I didn't expect when I sent that email requesting an audition time slot:
1) I didn't expect to be chosen;
2) I didn't expect to rehearse five hours a day, five-to-six days each week, for a month;
3) I didn't expect to be manhandling a young woman in her underwear night after night;
4) I didn't expect to be eviscerated and devoured onstage, six inches away from my horrified mother;
5) I didn't expect to have so much fun.

For anyone who hasn't yet seen the show, which closes its run with three performances this weekend, here's the premise: GMT audience members and others were asked to write down song titles and drop them into a suggestion box; six local playwrights (including the aforementioned Flash Gorman) selected one or two songs each and wrote 10-minute plays based on them; six local directors (including the aforementioned Peter Davis) were tapped to bring the plays to life; and nine local actors were cast without knowing the roles they would eventually play. The show is produced by GMT founding member Britt Olsen-Ecker, with artistic director Andrew Peters serving as stage manager. To bring home the "mixtape" theme, Britt and Andrew invited three local musical acts (Dave DeDionisio, Red Sammy, and Quinn S.) to perform during the three weekends of the show's run.

If I seem to overuse the term "local" in the paragraph above, it's not entirely the result of sloppy writing on my part. Despite the settings of the plays, which range from the Deep South to the flatness of the Heartland, 'Brainstorm, Vol. 2' is a Baltimore production from start to finish. The first weekend even featured an ode to Natty Boh, followed by a toast with Baltimore's unofficial brew. Many of the cast and crew are graduates or current students of Goucher College, Towson University, or my own alma mater, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

During last Saturday's performance, the actors competed with the noise from a Senegalese wedding in the adjoining Load of Fun gallery. At one point, a quiet moment in the play 'The Effect of Songs' was punctured by the blended cacophony of West African nuptial revelry, the blaring of police sirens on North Avenue, and the rattle of spray cans from the graffiti artists tagging the alley just outside the theater. It was a sublimely Baltimore moment, a serendipitous snippet of a raucous urban mixtape.

One of the things that has impressed me most about GMT's cast and crew is the deft way they balance professionalism with play. There's plenty of horsing around before and after rehearsals and performances - watch the video below for proof - but when it's time to focus, the ensemble does so with a discipline that is frequently lacking in work environments, even those of the shirt-and-tie variety. This ethos is very much in evidence among GMT's standing company, whose members meet on a weekly basis to discuss everything from the organization's props budget to its Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Watching these young actors, directors, playwrights, and techies work together, I have to remind myself that this is not a full-time job for any of them. They are all variously employed as educators, bartenders, administrative assistants, and the like. Yet they approach their theater work with admirable dedication and considerable skill. This is reflected in the ways they interact with each other, with their associate artists, and with audience members.

For me, the past two months have been like an immersion course in different aspects of acting and stagecraft. I've learned about intention, blocking, and spike marks. I've engaged in Viewpoints work, courtesy of director Lynn Morton. I've done some rudimentary stage combat for the scene in which I get devoured by cannibals - or are they werewolves? - in Shaun Vain's 'Ripped and Torn.' I've tried to locate my accent in the piedmont region of North Carolina in Julie Lewis' "Which Way We Step." I've watched the lighting and sound technicians wrangle over colors and levels. I even assisted in the construction of the platform from which Erin Boots (whom the City Paper praises as "fantastic" in the show) dives at the end of 'The Effect of Songs.'

Working on 'Mixtape' has allowed me to dip my toe into the waters of theater just enough to appreciate how deep, wide, and wild those waters are. I will always be grateful for the introduction. And, being not only the least experienced actor in the cast, but also its oldest member, I profoundly appreciate the way that everyone associated with this production has made me feel part of the ensemble.

I don't know if theater will be something that I pursue with any sort of regularity, or if this is a one-time thing. But I do know that for a couple of months in 2011, at least, I was an actor.


Photos & Videos:
1. Siarra Mong & Erin Boots rehearse a scene from 'Ripped & Torn'
2. 'Ripped & Torn' director Mike Burgtorf
3. Shaun Vain, Alex Scally, & Amy Parochetti rehearse a scene from Hollis Robbins' 'Poetic Meat'
4. Musical guest Red Sammy plays 'Cactus Flower' (sorry about the camera shake in the first few seconds of that vid)
5. Lauren Saunders & Amy Parochetti rehearse a scene from 'Which Way We Step'
6. Erin Boots & Jay Hargrove get slap-happy during tech week
7. GMT founding artistic director, 'Mixtape' stage manager, & overall svengali Andrew Peters

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Taking Every Brick Personally

An oft-told story about William Donald Schaefer, who died yesterday at age 89, recounts how, as mayor, he would come banging into the City Hall in a rage about an abandoned car he passed on his way to work, or pothole that needed fixing. He would harangue his beleaguered staff, huff into his office, slam the door, and by close of business that afternoon, the car would be gone, the pothole filled.

That tale, which I've now heard from several former members of Schaefer's mayoral administration, has always struck me as a perfect illustration of everything both heroic and tragically flawed about the former Baltimore mayor, Maryland governor, and state comptroller.

He was inspiring and infuriating. He was a visionary with a penchant for micromanagement. He was possessed of a larger-than-life personality that he chronically allowed to get in his own way. He was a bare-knuckled politician with little patience for policy wonks. He could be charming and he could be belligerent. He loved his hometown of Baltimore with a towering passion, but it was a passion that hindered his ability to govern the state as a whole. He couldn't decide whether he preferred the trenches or the limelight. He had the tenacity of a mule, but also its obstinacy. He never backed down from a fight, but he never knew when he should just shut up and walk away.

Schaefer was notorious for straying from his script, a habit that was celebrated by some, lamented by others, and dreaded by his staff. A friend of mine was a greenhorn speechwriter for the then-Mayor back in the 80's. He recalled how Schaefer would approach the lectern, glance dismissively at his prepared remarks, tell the audience about the "bright young man in the back" who had "written a nice speech" for him, and then proceed to ad-lib for 20 minutes.

That off-the-cuff tendency got Schaefer into trouble on more than one occasion. Relations were frosty with the Clinton administration after he crossed party lines to endorse Republican George H.W. Bush for president in 1992. More recently, then-Comptroller Schaefer raised eyebrows and ire by criticizing immigrants and making sexist remarks about female staffers in Annapolis.

I admit I was never one of William Donald Schaefer's biggest fans. I arrived in Baltimore in 1989, shortly after he vaunted to well-deserved stardom for the miraculous transformation of the dilapidated docks at the intersection of Light and Pratt streets into the now-world-famous Inner Harbor. My first recollection of him was an unflattering news article that described how Schaefer had tracked down and verbally abused a Baltimore man who had criticized him in the press. Then came the Bush endorsement, and then, years after that, Schaefer's truculent refusal to endorse fellow Democrat Martin O'Malley in his bid for the governor's mansion.

But it was Schaefer's second term as comptroller that cemented in my mind the idea of him as a remnant of a happily bygone age in American politics, a fighter who didn't know when to quit the ring. He drew outrage from the immigrant community in 2004 when he claimed that a foreign-born employee at a fast food restaurant couldn't speak English. That same year, he asserted that people with AIDS "brought [the disease] upon themselves."

In 2006, Schaefer made lewdly suggestive comments to a female gubernatorial aide, then referred to a female reporter as a "sweet little girl." He sealed his political fate during his run for a third term as state comptroller, when he referred to his rival as a "prissy little miss" who "looks like Mother Hubbard - it's sort of like she was a man." He was voted out of his job, and out of the spotlight he loved, that year.

I met Schaefer three times, two of them after his departure from public office. The last time I saw him was at an event to announce the launch of a charitable fund in his honor that benefits Baltimore neighborhoods. This was shortly before he was moved (involuntarily, I should note) from the East Baltimore rowhome where he had spent much of his life, to a long-term care facility in Catonsville.

He was clearly in ill health. His slurred speech, glassy eyes, and confused expression betrayed hints of dementia. At first he refused to take the podium, a demurral that caused some alarm among the organizers of the event. When he finally rose to speak, a baited hush fell over the room as all the assembled news crews, friends, and community residents waited to see whether Schaefer would be able to struggle through his brief prepared remarks. The tremor in his hands was evident as he gripped the lectern. He stood there silently for several seemingly interminable seconds before opening his mouth.

And then he just blew the doors off the place. Just as he had done in countless press conferences before, Schaefer proceeded to ignore his notes and speak with customary frankness and bracing clarity. He was funny. He was insightful. He was inspiring. He mugged. He played to the cameras. He courteously acknowledged then-Mayor Sheila Dixon, who would later suffer her own fall from grace. He displayed none of the petulant incoherence that had characterized his recent public appearances. Through it all shone a dedication to his city that had never wavered in a long and hard-fought career.

Schaefer reminisced fondly about his four terms as mayor, calling it "the best job I ever had." He said that if you want to be a good mayor, you have to "wage war" on blight and garbage, you have to take "every brick out of place" in the city as a personal affront. That you have to care about the neighborhoods and the people in them.

As he delivered this fiery yet wistful valediction, I realized why he was so beloved by so many. It wasn't just that he had given 50 years of his life to public service. It wasn't just because of his operatic personality and considerable charisma. It wasn't just that he was the man behind Harborplace, Oriole Park, the Light Rail, and the surprising staying power of the slogan "Charm City."

Baltimore loves William Donald Schaefer because he loved Baltimore. He fought hard for it for over half a century. People love Schaefer because when he saw an a pothole on the way to work, he felt responsible for making sure it was filled. People love him because he took every brick out of place personally.

Godspeed, Mr. Mayor.


Anyone wishing to honor William Donald Schaefer's memory and legacy may make a contribution to the William Donald Schaefer Civic Fund at the Baltimore Community Foundation. The fund supports projects in the Baltimore neighborhoods Schaefer loved.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Walbrook Film Project Teaches Students About More Than Holding a Camera

Filmmaker and volunteer instructor Josef Sawyer addresses the audience.

Arts, community, violence, conflict resolution, history, memory: these were some of the topics explored in three short films by 10 young artists whose work was screened yesterday afternoon at the Walbrook Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

The films were part of the Walbrook Project, a student filmmaking initiative created by Felicia Pride, founder of The Backlist, and her sister Fellina. Using the Walbrook library as a hub, the Pride sisters recruited film instructor Josef Sawyer and other volunteer mentors and armed a group of middle- and high schoolers to document aspects of life in West Baltimore over a six-month period. Support for the project came from a $1,500 Ignition Grant* awarded to Felicia Pride in September 2010.

Learning the fundamentals of filmmaking gave the young participants a new perspective on the media they consume. "I learned how to properly take an interview, how to ask questions and film it," said one student. "[The project] changed my view of media and when I watch the news, I think about how to set up the cameras, how people don't hold cameras anymore -- everything's automatic."

Another student picked up the theme. "When I watch the newscast, I'm thinking about things like headroom, how to focus on person when they're talking," she said.

The experience taught the young filmmakers more than just the basics of framing, blocking, and editing.

"We learned to work as a team," enthused one of a trio of young women who collaborated to produce the film 'Walbrook: Heart of the Arts.' "I learned how friends can operate together in a work setting."

"I learned that Walbrook used to have a lot of businesses," reflected a young man who interviewed older community residents for the film 'Through Their Eyes: Elders of Walbrook.' "I didn't know we used to have streetcars. I learned that Walbrook can be a better community."

About 60 people, most of them community residents, attended yesterday's screening. Audience members praised the students for they way they applied the skills they had acquired, and encouraged them to dream big.

Felicia Pride (far right), Fellina Pride (second from right), and other mentors applauded the young people's accomplishments.

"You never know where [the study of filmmaking] might take you," said volunteer mentor Dankwa Brooks, who works in the media unit of the Baltimore City Police Department. "Media literacy impacts how we look at messages and the media we consume."

"It's good to see that youth who don't go to Baltimore School for the Arts can still create good art," asserted a man in the audience during a question-and-answer session, drawing heartfelt applause from the crowd.

Participating in the project gave the students an opportunity to delve into particular aspects of their lives and the life of the city.

"We wanted to see how arts impact the community," explained one of the filmmakers behind 'Walbrook: Heart of the Arts.' The film features interviews with members of WombWork Productions, a grassroots company that promotes healing and empowerment through dance, theater, and other forms of creative expression.

Another film, 'Two-Way Mirror: Walbrook,' opens with a shot of two teenage boys playing ball on a grassy field on North Hilton Street, while police sirens blare in the background. The boys are approached by another pair of young men who demand the ball. When the demand is refused, a chase and scuffle ensue, culminating in a fight scene that is unsettling in its realistic depiction of violence.

"We wanted to present what we see every day in the 'hood'," explained one of the filmmakers, who put air-quotes around the word 'hood.' "This is what happens outside of school, and sometimes in school. The violence is getting worse and worse, closer and closer to where you live."

Despite its grim subject matter, 'Two-Way Mirror' ends on an optimistic note. After the beating scene, a title card appears that reads, "what should have happened..." The film then rewinds to the point where the "gang members" (as they are listed in the credits) ask for the ball. Rather than refusing them outright, the owner of the ball agrees to give it to them, on the condition that the four boys play with it together. The film closes on a scene of both pairs of young men tossing the ball back and forth.

While 'Two-Way Mirror' shows a reflection of West Baltimore's youth, 'Through Their Eyes: Elders of Walbrook' offers a portrait of three of the community's older residents.

"I love the city," says S. Bunjo Butler in the opening scene. "Everbody I love is here." Butler, who is the manager of the Walbrook Library, and who was on hand for yesterday's screening, goes on in the film to lament the "heartbreaking" changes he has witnessed to his community over time, i.e. increases in crime, drug activity, and poverty.

Despite these concerns, Butler and his fellow older adults express hope for the future. "In twelve and a half years, I'll be 100 years old," says a surprisingly spry-looking Herman Pittman in the film. A local businessman who owns several properties in the area, Pittman envisions the restoration of North Avenue into "a Main Street." Education is the key to that revitalization, he says.

Some of the reminiscences of the older people profiled in 'Through Their Eyes' provoked warm responses from the audience. "We had Arundel's Ice Cream," recalls an interviewee, who goes on to talk about how racism kept her from going to certain schools and eating at a particular restaurant. The mention of the now-defunct ice cream parlor prompted fond chuckles and murmurs of "Oh, yeah!" from the crowd.

Asked what he learned from interviewing older adults, one of the filmmakers responded, "One of the things I learned is how Baltimore was back then. And Baltimore is still changing now, so hopefully...I'll be able to tell someone who's sitting in my seat how it was back in my time."

Another young project participant said that listening to older members of the community caused her to see the economic potential in her neighborhood, and that she was now inspired to obtain a college degree in order to help realize that potential.

One young woman admitted to feeling overwhelmed by the choices facing her. "When someone asks me what I want to do when I go to college, I don't know what to say, because I want to do everything," she laughed.

Such sentiments were clearly music to the ears of the adults in the room, particularly the many proud mothers in attendance. One after another, family members, mentors, neighbors, and visitors rose to commend the young filmmakers on the works they had produced, and to encourage them to keep achieving.

The young dreamers blushed and smiled.


The three short films will be available for viewing online in the near future. They will be linked from this site.


*Full disclosure: I am a member of the Ignition Grant review team.