BALTIMORE — Last fall, artist Person Abide was violently attacked by a fellow resident while living in a punk house. They fled and found refuge in the Bell Foundry, a DIY venue in Baltimore’s Station North Arts and Entertainment District that was recently shut down. “So as a queer person of color,” Abide said, “I saw that space function as a sanctuary not just for myself, but increasingly, because of advocacy for more people of color, we got to see the space go from a mostly white punk house and venue to mostly people of color — black and brown artists and queer folks.”
Georgia McCandlish, a printmaker and former tenant of the Bell, noted that, at the time of the shutdown, more than half of the dozen or so people using the space were “non-men, women, and queer-identified folks.” Its diversity created a place where people with marginalized identities could “recuperate, live in a community, and be cared for,” they said.
On December 5, a few days after a fire in Oakland killed 36 people at the DIY venue Ghost Ship, Baltimore City fire marshals and the housing authority condemned the Bell Foundry. During a surprise inspection, a fire marshal recorded multiple violations such as holes in the floor and improper, hazardous ventilation systems. All of the people who occupied the space — artists, musicians, organizers of varying stripes, as well as the nonprofit Baltimore Rock Opera Society — were given less than an hour to grab their belongings and vacate. Someone set up a GoFundMe to help the evictees, raising over $18,000 in a week.
Though it seemed implied, the fire marshal declined to say that the inspection had come in response to Oakland; an official noted that the department had received an anonymous tip to inspect the space. The following day, tenants were allowed back in to move out the rest of their belongings. About 50 community members came through to help load boxes, furniture, music and printmaking equipment, art, and much more into vehicles. Since the Bell was zoned for commercial use, not residential, no one was given any resources or support from the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.
“For a lot of people, being in the Bell Foundry was a lot safer than wherever else they would’ve been,” said McCandlish. “It’s safer than being in a home under threat of eviction, safer than being in an abusive relationship where you’re trapped in an expensive lease, safer than being on a street that’s highly policed and someone might arrest or report you because of your skin color. There’s so many layers to what safety looks like, and structural hazard is only one of them — and not even, for many people, the most important one.”
“I think that as long as there is a housing crisis, people are going to do what they need to, to get the most use out of whatever space they have access to, regardless of safety,” Abide said. “If the city wants to take an approach to reducing that harm, there need to be low-impact options with little consequences that lead to displacement for renters, and landlords see to it that spaces get repaired.”
In Baltimore, 16,000 homes stand vacant, depreciating in value and sometimes literally falling apart. In March, 69-year-old Thomas Lemmon was sitting in his Cadillac next to an abandoned house when it collapsed, killing him. Meanwhile, a roughly estimated 3,000 Baltimore citizens remain homeless on any given night.
Abide suggests an ideal response from the city to this housing crisis would be to create a public works program in which workers could undertake renovations to make those abandoned homes habitable. “That housing stock specifically being a resource that’s been systemically stripped, stolen from black Baltimoreans for decades,” they said, adding that this effort could be a form of reparations.
Former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, whose last day in office was December 5 — the day of the Bell’s closure — often spoke in press conferences about how the arts bring “vibrancy” to the city. New Mayor Catherine Pugh, on her first full day in office — two days after the condemnation — responded to the situation at the Bell. “We value artists living in the city. We have a great arts community. What we don’t want to happen is what we just saw happen in California. We don’t want that same type of condition to happen here,” Pugh told the Baltimore Sun.
But the Bell Foundry condemnation is about much more than affordable housing for artists, Abide said. When the city talks about creating special opportunities or housing for artists — such as the City Arts apartments a couple of blocks away — it does little else but heighten real estate speculation, eventually leading to the development and gentrification of those areas.
Baltimore native Qué Pequeño, a musician and writer who was one of those evicted, said he’s looking into buying land. He also said the Bell Foundry saved his life. “I wouldn’t be an artist today if it wasn’t for taking safe haven in Bell Foundry,” he explained. “And that’s exactly what it was: a safe haven for black artists and black people in general — especially those last few months that we had it.”
Over those last few months, Pequeño booked shows and performances in the space, eventually renaming the venue “You Know T.F. Where” on fliers and Facebook event pages. This was, in part, a move to introduce folks who may have been used to the Bell as a predominantly white punk space “to a new spot, an underground venue where they could come chill out,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t tolerate racism, sexism, transphobia, or homophobia. You Know T.F. Where also centered music and performances by black people and all people of color.
That a venue might focus on work by black artists in a city where 63% of the population is black might not seem noteworthy. But Pequeño feels that homegrown black artists don’t get much institutional support in this city, and thus have access to fewer resources, grants, and other opportunities to thrive — compared to, say, artists who find their way into Baltimore via the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), where students are predominantly white (full disclosure: this writer moved to Baltimore in 2010 to attend MICA).
If the institutions and organizations awarding grants scan a résumé and see that the applicant has a connection to MICA, “they trust you more and they’re able to give you these grants,” Pequeño said. “We didn’t have those resources — we are amazing artists, but we don’t have the résumés, so they look over us. Or maybe we’re just not aware of these [opportunities] ’cause they don’t tell us.”
Pequeño makes clear his need for solidarity with other black artists. And he wants to own land and build on it with those artists, which he says is the only way to fight gentrification. “I want my space to be accessible to black people all over the city — west, south, east, north,” he said.
He recounts a recent show at the Bell that was at capacity, estimating that there were maybe only 10 white people in the crowd. “I’m proud of the fact that we don’t need white people to fill up audiences,” he said. “We don’t need white spaces, and we proved that — we fuckin’ proved that.”
Abdu Ali, a rapper/performer/writer whom Pequeño refers to as “the Gucci Mane of Baltimore City,” for all of his show organizing and platform building, is also critical of the way the city treats its artists. Big, annual events like Artscape or this year’s inaugural Light City, which both attempt to draw in tourism dollars, create platforms for artists (local and non-local) for a few days or a week, but Ali says there’s not much in the way of consistent structural support for independent practitioners.
“It’s a limited amount of black-owned creative spaces in this city, and the ones that do exist have a hard time existing because they’re highly policed,” he said. “They got more pressure on their back to follow the rules, to stay alive, to make money.”
He adds that art institutions in the city could do better at being more inclusive of Baltimore artists, particularly artists of color. But often these institutions seem to progress at a glacial pace, if at all, which is why artist-run DIY spaces such as the Bell Foundry can feel so crucial and revolutionary.
“Independent, small, creative spaces owned by the artists themselves, or occupied by the artists themselves, curated by the artists themselves, are really important because they reflect the reality of what’s going on the city, in the neighborhood, nation, everywhere,” Ali said.
Baltimore’s DIY spaces range from rowhouse basements to labyrinthine warehouse spaces, and they host poetry, performance, music, and art — and more that’s harder to classify. Many within the scene say that what comes out of these spaces is what either keeps them in Baltimore or drew them here in the first place.
“We all want the city to be better,” Ali added. “It’s not like we’re working as selfish individuals with wants and needs, but us being able to create the things we create, and thrive, and create spaces — it’s going to make the city a better place to exist.”