By Steve St. Angelo
The Station North Arts District is a collage—the many different Baltimores pasted into one nitty, gritty nutshell. It’s a concert—car horns, bus air brakes, and shouts and whispers about what’s come before and what’s coming next. It’s a movie—extremely colorful, but with stark black-and-white footage woven into the narrative of city blocks left to wither, of a traffic pass-through kept alive by a spunky band of believers that, if not exactly a work of art, has become a pocket of creativity and surprisingly good eating. Vegans welcome.
Where to start? How about with a stroll across the Howard Street Bridge from Mount Royal Avenue and the Maryland Institute College of Art to the corner of Howard and North Avenue. (And DO mind the traffic, please.)
Unless you’ve come specifically to restock, maybe do NOT start at Artist & Craftsman Supply. If you do, you might not go anywhere else. That joint is dense, but we’ll get to it in a few moments.
First, a disclaimer (with a bit of horn tooting thrown in for free): Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus is a stone’s throw up Howard Street (past Remington) and so it has a vested interest in seeing Station North stabilized for the entertainment and safety of students and affiliates—one more reason to choose Baltimore and JHU, am I right?! And … toot-toot! … Hopkins has indeed put its money, time, and effort—in partnership with other local institutions—into making the arts district happen.
And so it has. What’s cool (and we’ll apologize right up front for anybody we’ve missed):
The Parkway Theatre—The new jewel of the area is actually a restored moviehouse from a century ago, part artifact and part inspiration for more such Hopkins neighborhood-building collaborations. Some of the neatest parts of the structure are the ones left unrepaired or un-updated. It’s a transporter beam to a different time. Heck, it’s just a great popcorn-and-a-movie (and a glass of wine or a beer) place, now the home of the annual Maryland Film Festival. The JHU-MICA Film Centre (home of JHU’s bachelor’s and master’s programs in film and media) is a few steps away. And with the Charles Theatre just down the street, it’s a great time (and locale) to be a film buff.
Red Emma’s Bookstore Cafe—The worker collective offers good coffee and other specialty hot drinks and a deliciously varied menu of vegan/vegetarian soups and sandwiches (and spinach pie). Eat your meal at—what else?—a communal table with, ahem, shared power outlets. The bookstore part of Red Emma’s is flat beautiful, tidy, and lovingly curated. It’s commies to comics—all the latest and greatest writings on art, feminism, racial equality, socialism, music, gender politics, and issues of the times. FYI, the place is named for anarchist Emma Goldman.
Graffiti Alley—This is actually a couple of intersecting alleys off of Howard Street just north of North. Bring your spray cans and have at it. The higher the “tag” the less likely it is to be painted over. There’s actually a fine lesson in here about the impermanence of art and life and … the usefulness of ladders or whatever. It’s really something to have classically trained artists and your everyday (gifted) street taggers collaborate on an ever-changing canvas. Go ahead. Point and shoot your paint … or your camera.
Motor House—This old warehouse features a collective (there’s that word again) of artists who, if they need a head-clearing break, can walk out onto Graffiti Alley for an avalanche of inspiration. Watch for open studio tours and sales. (Or make an appointment with your favorite artist.) The breadth and quality of the art housed there is mind-bending. A performance space brings music, spoken word, and varied theatrical works to the block.
Showroom Cafe and Bar—This place just opened in Motor House. Good things are being heard about it as a spot to charge up before a Motor House (or other North Avenue) event. Been there? Maybe share a report in the comments section and we’ll all learn.
Joe Squared—Thin-crust pizzas and “25 varieties of risotto,” for there or to go. Friendly little bar area. Hipster vibe. This place helped lead the charge at upping North Avenue’s restaurant game and thus earned its bigger space not far from the original, so we’ll let that last part go.
Station North Arts Cafe—For a decade, the owners of this community-minded eatery have sung the neighborhood’s praises and filled the stomachs of all those lucky enough to wander by or park on the so-far nondescript block. It does breakfast and lunch, with vegetarian options, cocktails, and catering available.
BAMF Cafe—Nerd alert, folks. We know you’re out there, but just how far out there? Far enough for a place named for “the sound that occurs when Nightcrawler, of the X-Men, teleports” or that celebrates a love for Books, Action figures, Movies, and Friends (depending upon who answers the question)? Sci-fi based cocktails and earthy light fare, all with a backdrop of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy films on the TVs. So uncool it’s actually, well, almost kinda cool. You do you, right?
The Windup Space—Bare-bones beer-booze joint that hosts artist installations, brainy talks, and very intimate concerts. Ping pong on Wednesdays.
Artist & Craftsman Supply—Now, are you really ever going to paint that papier-mache teddy bear once you get it home? Do you really need that sheet of decorative paper with the peach-fuzz pattern? Monkey socks? Painter’s briefcase? Miniature plastic meerkat? Really? Yes, yes, yes, yes (well, no .. but), and yes, please. This is a place for artists, for craftspeople. But oh my god, the cunning red fox and bunnies terrarium/eraser set. It’s absolutely endless. Go grab some fresh air before you spend all your money. Better yet, grab a spray paint can from the store’s seemingly endless assortment and head over to Graffiti Alley. What better way to leave your mark on Station North once it’s left its mark on you?
More Quirky Baltimore Neighborhoods
- East Baltimore, on the Comeback Trail
- Remington, a living Baltimore scrapbook
- Hampden, 8th Hottest Neighborhood in America