Open City is a new exhibition designed to explore the city of Baltimore from social, economic, and historical perspectives, focusing especially on issues of separation.
by Cara Ober
How do you reconcile the Baltimore of cinder blocked windows and hypodermic needles with the Baltimore of affluent colleges and tulip gardens? Whether we admit it or not, we Baltimoreans inhabit two separate cities that rarely overlap. This dualism seems to be an inevitable, unfortunate fact of life here. As a result, we all create internal maps delineating the “safe” parts of the city from the sections perceived as “other.”
However, would it make a difference to learn that current perceptions of safety and fear are largely based on historical policies designed to separate people? Would it make you more likely to engage with “other” communities if you learned that Baltimore’s segregation has been systematically organized and legislated since the city’s inception?
Open City is a new exhibition designed by students enrolled in MICA’s Education Design Seminar to explore the city of Baltimore from social, economic, and historical perspectives, focusing especially on issues of separation. The exhibit operates on the premise that “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.” Through a series of free exhibits, installations, public programs, performances, and interactive games, the exhibit poses the question, “Does Baltimore feel open or does housing discrimination, bad public transportation, and the privatization of public space separate people and create an uneven distribution of opportunity?” Visitors to the exhibition are invited to visualize Baltimore as a more inclusive and nurturing place and to participate directly in the conversation about how best to heal the city.
Rather than locating the exhibit on MICA’s campus, the students decided to house Open City in the abandoned North Avenue Market, with several additional locations, including a “pop up” shop on Fayette Street. The events surrounding the exhibit are also designed for maximum inclusivity and feature marching bands, an arm wrestling tournament, a film series, a dinner, neighborhood tours, interactive contests, and panel discussions with scholars, activists, and artists.
Upon entering the exhibit, the viewer is confronted with a larger-than-life timeline of images and text about Baltimore’s housing, events, transportation, and development over the past two hundred years. Color coded and divided into decades, the installation is packed with charming, vintage photos and newspaper clippings that draw viewers in, then shock them with what they read. For example, in 1924, “The U.S. Supreme Court affirms the District of Columbia’s court decision to enforce a covenant against African American [home] buyers” and “The National Association of Real Estate Boards amends its code of ethics to forbid Realtors from introducing ‘members of any race or nationality’ into neighborhoods where their ‘presence will clearly be detrimental to property values.’” The timeline is a sobering and systematic exposé of generations of exclusionary practices and legislation.
On the floor, “Landscape of Opportunity,” a sculpture by Matthew Lohry and Chris McCanbell, has a more mysterious presence. Stacks and groupings of wooden lathe, salvaged from condemned row houses, stretch out like a three-dimensional topographical map, with spots labeled with the names of Baltimore landmarks (neighborhoods?) and nearby towns. In fact, the piece is a chart, based on varying levels of education, health, and socio-economic status. Artist and EDS student Matthew Lohry explains, “We wanted to take statistics and visualize them in space, to actually see what happens when cities de-industrialize. It’s obvious that wealth moves out to the counties, with devastating effects to the city.”
Next to the map is a series of large, color photographs called “Fortress Architecture,” by Matthew Lohry and Nick Clifford Simko. The images depict familiar walls, opaque windows, and modern architectural structures, but are cropped to emphasize their exclusionary attributes. In this context, local hospitals, colleges, and business centers resemble walled Renaissance palazzos and European castles. Viewers immediately realize these structures were designed to give their inhabitants a sense of safety in areas where wealth interacts with poverty.