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After the riots, Baltimore’s best shot at redemption may be its arts community

The Washington Post
June 10, 2015

On the April day when Freddie Gray died from injuries he suffered in police custody and a week before rioters took to the streets in protest, Karen Brooks Hopkins, president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, gave a PowerPoint presentation to a small group of Baltimoreans about the future of their city.

With its low rents and offbeat entertainment scene, Baltimore has had an influx of young college-educated urbanites. But the city wrestles with a shocking number of shootings and a mobtown reputation that has driven many high earners to the suburbs. The symposium, in a state-of-the-art auditorium little more than a mile down North Avenue from the blighted block where Gray was arrested, centered on a question that has sparked revitalization efforts from Detroit to Dublin and from Miami to Marseille: whether arts can turn a city around.

They can, said Hopkins, who helped turn BAM into a catalyst for Brooklyn’s cultural revolution “where institutions small and large, ethnically diverse, and visual and performing arts exist side by side — a metaphor for how we live in this urban environment.”

Hopkins was speaking in a 1915 warehouse that has been repurposed as the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Lazarus Center for graduate studies. The $19 million renovation, complete with a 130-seat auditorium, cafe and light-filled atrium, is named after MICA’s recently retired president, Fred Lazarus. But the building looks like something of a miracle itself, risen from streets still scarred by the riots of 1968. With its glass doors and open aspect, it provided a symbolic setting for a discussion about an experiment in urban renewal that has been underway here since 2002. That’s when Maryland recognized the kernels of creativity in the troubled blocks north of Baltimore’s train station and designated them its first “arts and entertainment district,” arming the 100-acre site with tax incentives to promote “community involvement, tourism and revitalization.”