Tuesday, May 25, 2010


For a class I teach about artists and / in the city, Rachel London did a great project called "Baltimore Sky Space Project." According to the website, Sky Space Project is "a project that aims to alter dark spaces through installations and events around viewing the night’s sky in Baltimore." The premise of the project is smart, simple, and, frankly, touching: Baltimore is a notoriously dark city, with blocks of abandoned rowhouses and relatively few streetlights. As a symbol of neglect, darkness is thus a bad thing (and a dangerous thing), but there is a silver lining. Baltimore's relative darkness means stars are more visible in Baltimore than they are in other cities. Baltimore, it turns out, is a relatively OK place to stargaze.

But, as evidenced by last Friday's inaugural "Night Lights" event--which brought a diverse group of people to an abandoned lot in Baltimore's Greenmount West neighborhood to watch live projection feeds of the night sky, look through telescopes, talk to a guest astronomer, listen to local starry music and drink iced tea--Sky Space Project is not about solitary stargazing. Sky Space Project is about community. As Rachel puts it, Night Lights "takes dark, empty lots and utilizes them to create feelings of safety in the city through a greater neighborhood presence. The events themselves literally use the darkness of the area to inspire patronage there."

The inaugural event was a great one that, incredibly, was broken up by the Baltimore Police. According to one eyewitness, as the event was nearing its end, patrons were told to leave or risk arrest, and were told that they were "a bunch of sardines in a shark tank."

Greenmount West is a dangerous neighborhood. So on the one hand, it's hard to not sympathize with the sentiment the police officers expressed. On the other hand, the police acted inappropriately, especially in light of the fact that no one was doing anything illegal (on the contrary, the event was a healthy, positive expression of community spirit). What's worse, if you take a long view of things, the police are acting as their own worst enemy. When they call the neighborhood a "shark tank" and shoe everyone away, they are in some respects creating a self-fulfilling prophesy. It would be naive to say that public perception and presence makes or breaks a neighborhood, but they can certainly contribute to its safety. Safety, after all, is a two-way street. Police have to do what they can but so do we: occupying a space a la Night Lights is a modest, but ultimately important thing that we can do to make a difference.

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