Monday, November 22, 2010


Created by Ashley Milburn for an open dialog on how art and culture builds resilient urban communities


BACKGROUND/Lay of the Land

The West Baltimore community, as I have come to know it, is not unlike other compressed  black urban communities throughout the US.  Its' history of systematic and intentional dismantling is not unique. However, it has another history as a self-reliant community built up during Baltimore's segregated era. This community began as a fully resourced and resilient community, under Baltimore's Jim Crow era in the 50's. It would soon be divided by the great  highway systems that would connected America.

This highway was drawn through though the middle of a community that would forever divide it and begun its slow bleeding of resources. Up to 19,000 residents would be displaced By a1.5 highway (RT 40/East & West) that went nowhere at its completion. For fifty years, the community suffered division that persist to this day. In retrospect, there has never been a public discussion, by the displaced residents, about what happened to them nor a rethinking about the fifty acres of green space which lain unused forty years, nor the 3 miles
of support wall space that could host the nations' largest mural that would support over seven-hundred local artists for more than a generation, nor the over two-hundred acres of space created by demolishing abandoned and neglected properties that are now empty lot just three blocks on either side of the highway.

Unpacking the levels of community engagement that has historically grown out of the division of the West Baltimore communities is a complicated understanding of how their circles of  influence work; the first is an existing and isolated Informal/Formal Community Organizations, the second is a mixture of self-motivated Stakeholders/City/Institutional, and the third is an ever present and unconnected array of addiction service institutions and social service providers/educational/religious/social). Each of these circles has its own dynamic of moving parts going at different speeds, directions, and responding to its own individual motives/needs.

All of these circles of influence are, by their historical dependency, intertwined, for they feed on each other and are locked into dependency framed around maintaining there deficit/assets push/pull relationship and have been operating for over twenty-five years within the West Baltimore communities changing little in their wake. This system of interlocking influences is a traditional relationship found in most urban minority communities. There are fourteen community organizations south of the highway and twenty north of the highway. They have little practiced at working together except at those things that jeopardize or threaten them all, like the creation of the highway or recently the advent of the Red Line light-rail mass transportation systems running inside the highway where they each are vying for advantage. The fractured environment created by the highway along with an ever increasing deterioration of housing stock abandoned, neglected by absentee owners and City owned property, has maintained the division of these communities and go unaddressed by City planners. Baltimore City has over ten thousand empty lots with most of them in West Baltimore. CultureWorks remains an under capitalized cultural initiative with no paid staff with one full time worker.

It has not formed an official form of identity (501-c3). It operates under an umbrella social change organization obtaining its not-for-profit status under this group as a member. It operates more like a coop of community interests using arts & culture as a way to make change with its eight member community Advisory Board. CultureWorks move its initiatives along with its central core planners and advisors known as its brain trust made up with members from the community. One major question that needs to be examined is, "How is it possible to have accomplished so much over the last fours years within the traditional capitalization that most institutions require to do work." One answer is that CultureWorks adopted early on a philosophy, developed by a community resident and community organizer, rooted in what we call "Ground Rooting." It simply states that we will not grow as an institution vertically, that is we will create an institution that draws resources away and out of community or the population we have chosen to serve.

Through this philosophy, we are able to bring others with us as we grow. We share everything. My role as a cultural organizer began this journey and was seen as the face of the project. As of 2010, in consolation with our think tank members, a community organizer was chosen to head the direction that CultureWorks would take into the future. CultureWorks is now a, truly, community driven process.

Question:  Is there support for this observation or dissent?

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