[Barbara Haddock Taylor, The Baltimore Sun]
Baltimore’s ancient small streets and hidden thoroughfares offer plenty of antique charm, and one in Upper Fells Point just became even more colorful. This is no ordinary passage. It’s a classic one-lane rowhouse street, not wide enough for parking on either side. The 200 block of S. Durham St. is also the place where a young Billie Holiday lived as a child in the 1920s.
I’d heard about a neighborhood-based arts project that was happening there from Steve Schwei, a five-year resident of the block who is also an information technology project manager. For more than two years, he’s been working on a way to treat the street as an homage to the legendary blues and jazz singer, who died in 1959.
Recently completed, this community arts project achieves its aims. Rarely have I seen a collection of murals, painted screens and mosaics that fit together so well. They celebrate Holiday, who lived at 219 S. Durham, and they add the right exclamation point to this venerable byway.
I walked along Durham, between Pratt and Gough streets, and was surprised at the unexpected ways the artists incorporated a rain spout (it becomes a microphone), windows, doors and other parts of houses into this colorful little urban canvas. It’s like a gallery with rowhouses as art objects. The painted screens trick your eye and make you smile.
“Five years ago, I had heard of Billie Holiday but I didn’t know much about her. I didn’t know her music,” said Schwei. “I saw the project as an opportunity, a way to do something for the artists and for Billie’s memory.”
He began modestly. He thought about getting local artists to paint screens in Billie Holiday themes. He said that residents heard about a grant offered through the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts. They thought bigger and won a $30,000 PNC Bank Transformative Art Grant for 2013.
I spoke with Bridget Cimino, a mural artist who created the larger works. A graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art who lives near Mount Washington, she created visions of Billie Holiday rising out of the 1940s Baltimore skyline. This is a proud and triumphant vision.
I asked Cimino about her past mural work. She was part of the team that restored the murals in the Senator Theatre in Belvedere Square and at the Franciscan Monastery in Northeast Washington, which she considers some of her main efforts.
Cimino also created a large depiction (on the back wall of the Fells Point Corner Theater that faces Durham Street) of Holiday signing autographs for children outside Pennsylvania Avenue’s Royal Theatre.
As a motif along the block, there are large painted gardenias, the fragrant flower Holiday wore tucked into her hair.
“A key goal of the project was to transform the block, which recently had as many as eight vacant houses on a street of 50 or so structures,” Schwei said. “The surrounding area has gentrified to some extent, but this street appeared to be neglected.”
He said that nearly 100 volunteers — and the artists who were paid for their works — gave Durham Street a fresh, colorful, inventive look. It might even become a tourist attraction.
“The block is already showing signs of a turnaround,” he said. “Our team is also working with the city to repave the street partially using Belgian blocks, similar to large cobblestones, which will provide the feel of a time long ago.”
The neighborhood is planning a musical street festival April 5 (with, of course, a Billie Holiday tribute singer) to show off what has been accomplished.