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MICA Students and Faculty Team Up to Explore Baltimore: Open City

Artist and Co-curators Amelia Szpiech, Matt Lohry and Carey Chiaia - Arianne Teeple
Artist and Co-curators Amelia Szpiech, Matt Lohry and Carey Chiaia - Arianne Teeple
Baltimoreans lovingly call their home "Charm City." Skeptics mockingly dub it "Harm City."

To be sure, Baltimore has its flaws. A diverse urban landscape pockmarked by rotting neighborhoods, marked by crime, drugs, and violence, and burdened by a struggling economy, the city has endured a long, tumultuous history of racial and ethnic conflict.

How did Baltimore become what it is? And what lies ahead for the Land of Supposedly Pleasant Living?

These are two of the questions students in the Maryland Institute College of Art's Exhibition Development Seminar (EDS) plan to examine and discuss in the interactive exhibition, Baltimore: Open City that opens April 1 and runs until May 15. Taking place at the geographical center of the city, the former North Avenue Market (16 W. North Ave.), the projects and ideas presented will center on the theme of an open city.

Defined by the students, an open city is "a place where everyone feels welcome, regardless of such things as wealth, race or religion. In every neighborhood of an open city, one feels like he or she belongs." The exhibit coincides with National Fair Housing Month.

"If you look at a map of Baltimore, there is a 20-year life expectancy difference between Baltimore's richest neighborhoods and Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods," says MICA assistant art history professor Daniel D'Oca, who is running this year's EDS. "So how can that be? When you look at a statistic like that you realize how important it is to not build walls between your neighborhoods and keep certain populations out because what you're doing is restricting people's access to things like education and life expectancy."

D'Oca, a co-founder of New York architecture firm Interboro Partners, first became interested in the idea of the open city through his involvement in Open City: Designing Coexistence for the 2009 International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam, which presented a similar theme but on a global scale.

At MICA, he began offering Open City as a three-credit seminar, and when curator-in-residence and EDS creator George Ciscle approached him about leading this year's exhibition seminar, D'Oca accepted.

To him, MICA's campus itself was a perfect starting point.

"It's a really amazing opportunity because students really try to learn from something that's right in their backyard," D'Oca says. "So they see that there's a city that has its problems, but it's full of opportunity as well."

The exhibit will feature a slew of projects with which Baltimoreans are welcome to interact. MICA has invited visiting New York artist Damon Rich, founder of the Center for Urban Pedagogy, to participate, but the majority of the work is student-generated.

One of the projects, Social Stoops, draws on Baltimoreans' beloved tradition of chatting on the steps outside their rowhouses. The students have taken the stoops from demolished homes and placed them in public areas for people to sit on and encounter each other, opening up these spaces for different types of interactions.

Other parts, like Edutopia, are simply spaces where people can meet and learn about Baltimore's history. Organizations with similar interests can use the space to meet and work.

Just as the EDS class has collaborated with other members of the community like students from Morgan State University, and organizations like the Citizens Planning and Housing Association and D:Center Baltimore, Baltimore: Open City is intended to be a hub for an ongoing dialogue.

"One of our biggest goals, short term, is to generate discourse about the environment in Baltimore and the history of it, what it is today and what it can look like in the future," says Carey Chiaia, a senior graphic design major participating in the exhibition. "I think we want this exhibition to extend beyond May 15 when it closes by just showing how artists can address issues and change the whole way we think about this stuff."

Because the exhibit is heavily based on history, D'Oca enlisted the assistance of historian-in-residence Antero Pietila, who authored Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City.

Pietila has acted as a resource in educating the students about Baltimore's ugly past and the mechanisms the government has used, like one-way streets, to keep invisible walls around the city's neighborhoods.

"A hundred years ago in 1910, Baltimore City became the first American city that required by a City Council ordinance that every residential block be segregated," Pietila said. "Three years later in 1913, the Roland Park Company started enforcing a company policy that excluded Jews from Roland Park. And at that point, there were half a dozen Jewish families living in Roland Park. When they sold their houses, they could no longer sell them to Jews, and so for the next 50 years, no Jews lived in Roland Park.

"This was a city that was a trailblazer city in segregation and exclusionary measures. ... Until the late 1960s, all real estate advertising in Baltimore newspapers was restrictive advertising. If you wanted to buy a house, there were advertising categories. 'Houses, white,' 'houses, negro,' and then there was a category of ads that had one line that everybody understood what it meant and it was 'restricted,' and that meant no Jews."

Following the Great Depression, the government took zoning measures to limit the risk of home foreclosures, partly doing so by color-coding neighborhoods, and sequestering blacks and Jews into the least desirable ones.

This, as Pietila said, created the self-fulfilling prophecy that shaped Baltimore's uneasy racial and ethnic dynamics.

But the message of Baltimore: Open City isn't a negative one. It's not about dwelling on the past, but instead learning from it and using that knowledge to turn Baltimore into an open city.

As an artist, Chiaia, originally from Connecticut, indicates that Baltimore is well on its way.

"Baltimore is a really great place to live and be right now, and to live as an artist and a student," he said. "There's a lot of freedom here. There's a lot of opportunity and freedom to do things, unique things. … You can make amazing things happen because there's so much support here."

Staci Wolfson is a Baltimore-born, NYU-educated writer and editor based in Charm City. In addition to BmoreMedia, you can read her writing on Patch.com and her Just for Kicks & Giggles soccer blog.

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Photos by Arianne Teeple:

- Artist and Co-curators Amelia Szpiech, Matt Lohry and Carey Chiaia.
- Carey Chiaia, artist and co-curator, shows an art piece he is working on about the racial history of Baltimore.
- Baltimore Open City logo - courtesy of Baltimore Open City
- Dan D'Oca, MICA assistant art history professor.
- Artist and Co-curators Amelia Szpiech, Matt Lohry and Carey Chiaia.
- Carey Chiaia, artist and co-curator, is creating an art piece on the racial history of Baltimore neighborhoods.
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