I started down this path in 2009 when, in the midst of an economic recession, I could not find traditional design work. So, as a fresh graduate of The Ohio State University, I searched for a way to gain non-traditional design experience. I found it in March 2009 after joining a group of young graphic designers from all over the country in Belfast, Maine, for a two-week session of Project M—a program for creative people inspired to contribute to the greater good. We devised a plan to unite people within the community through free pie. We hosted a Free Pie event which led to several other events around the country and, ultimately, a permanent pie shop and community space in Greensboro, Alabama, called PieLab.
I dedicated my every waking hour to the PieLab experiment for almost two years. When the time came to move on, the economy had somewhat recovered, but I was still a self-declared unemployable designer. I had acquired a strong sense of independence and confidence through the autonomous, figure-it-out-as-I-go “job” at Pielab. So I launched a freelance design practice working for media and nonprofit clients throughout the country. In early 2012, I landed a job serving as a Senior Designer in the Obama for America re-election campaign. In this role, I directly applied my design skills to a cause that I could get behind, on a platform with tremendous impact and reach.
When I began my MFA in Graphic Design at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in 2013, I considered topics for my thesis project, which I would begin the following year. I gave myself some requirements: focus on writing, collaborate with a community, conduct original research, and design a publishable artifact that could continue to have relevance in the public realm after the project concluded. I decided to explore the role of Designer as Journalist. This hybrid approach allowed me to combine all of my design interests to create a substantial, 64-page publication which I authored, edited, designed, and published.
The discovery of my subject matter came about through sheer curiosity. At the start of my thesis journey, I had been a resident of Baltimore for a little over one year. I paid attention to the chatter about the state-anointed Station North Arts & Entertainment District. My school, MICA, had a role in the Station North revitalization strategy, and my husband worked for a nonprofit development company that directly invested in the district. The contrasts in this area in central Baltimore were striking. Like the city of Baltimore as a whole, Station North had its beauty—majestic historic theaters, public art projects, hip bars and restaurants—as well as its ugly—societal ills, rampant vacancy, civic disinvestment on public display.
The state of Maryland created the Arts and Entertainment District Program almost fifteen years ago to provide tax incentives that encouraged arts-related investment in cities. The program was roughly premised on Richard Florida's Creative Class theory, which posited that creative residents could spur economic development. Station North was declared an Arts & Entertainment District in 2002. It is a case study in “creative placemaking”—described by the National Endowment for the Arts as a strategy to “shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood around arts and cultural activities.” So when I began my research, I asked myself, “Is it working?” I wondered what could be discovered about Station North if I asked that question and many more.
I wanted to measure the “cultural vitality” of the ad-hoc creative placemaking occurring in Station North. I wanted to know what kind of impact the designation had on the neighborhoods in the district, with data (for infographics) to back it up. I wanted to uncover whether residents thought the Arts & Entertainment designation was positive or negative. I wanted to use design to tell stories about people and their relationship to place. In essence, I wanted to build upon my past experiences designing public work and create a visual story that showcased the Station North culture, people, and change occurring in the district at that moment in time.
First, I met with Ben Stone, the Executive Director of Station North Arts & Entertainment, Inc. We chatted in a small café called Canteen. Ben provided a list of names of artists and business owners for me to reach out to. I connected with Tara Megos, the force behind Hidden Harvest Farm. I met Lena Leone, the President of the New Greenmount West Community Association. Each interview led to another. I saw the inside of the CopyCat during my interview with Brooks Kossover. I became acquainted with Stephen Towns in City Arts Apartments. I met Hannah Brancato of FORCE in a massive warehouse at Greenmount Avenue and Oliver Street—the future location of a makerspace and incubator for Baltimore's creative economy. The building will provide afordable working studios and access to state-of-the-art production facilities. After months of interviews, I only wished I had more time to keep questioning.
Finding answers to my questions about Station North was complicated. My questions were simplistic while the answers were nuanced, fraught with contradictions. I struggled in my quest to interview a representative group of people who lived in the District. If I had more time, I would have spent it walking the streets of Station North, knocking on doors, and meeting people where they lived—people who may have lacked email addresses but deserved to have their voice heard.
In its thirteenth year as an Arts & Entertainment District, Station North in 2015 is still young; the experiment is a work in progress. Large development projects, backed by investors like Johns Hopkins University, are slated to open within the next two years. This growth raises questions: Does this investment make the Arts & Entertainment District a success? Could the progress spiral and result in the displacement of longtime residents? Whom is the Arts & Entertainment designation intended to benefit? Canteen, the location where I held my first interview, has since closed. Its short-lived existence is evidence of the volatility and vulnerability inherent in this kind of arts-based economic development.
My goal for my publication, which I called Track, was to portray Station North at this moment in time. The publication presents unique, synthesized research about the district. The people I interviewed are truly invested in this place, and this publication is a platform for them. I added context to the content by integrating a range of voices along the edges of the pages. My intent was not to judge, but to document. I distributed the 100 copies of Track, which were printed by the Newspaper Club, to businesses and residents throughout Station North. I hope the publication contributes to a deeper understanding of where Station North is and sustains, for the next few years, the conversation about where Station North might be going.
Personally, as I explored this creative district in Baltimore, I learned a lot as a hybrid designer/journalist. I learned about the ethics of journalism and how to objectively report the stories I had discovered. I also learned about the process of art-directing illustrations. I collaborated with Seo Kim, an adjunct MFA in Illustration Practice professor at MICA, to develop editorial-illustration prompts for students. This process led to the creation of eight fantastic illustrations that were included throughout Track. I met my personal thesis goals and extended my design practice into new territory—self-authored journalism. My experience as Designer as Journalist has only increased my desire to continue to work within the public realm. In fact, I intend to stay, post-graduation, in the city about which I learned so much. Throughout my career, I want to design work that elevates our cultural discourse.