Photographing Old Town, East Baltimore
Baltimore-based photographer James Singewald has been documenting the city’s deterioration one block at a time. Most recently his graduate work at the Maryland Institute College of Art focused on the failed urban renewal project known as Old Town Mall. His current project “Baltimore: A History, Block by Block” takes a similar approach. Below, Singewald talks about how his projects coincide and the need to revitalize Baltimore’s communities. He also shares with The Darkroom, photos from “Old Town, East Baltimore.”
This is Part 1 in a two-part series about Old Town Mall. Click to read Part 2.
James Singewald — While I was at the Maryland Institute College of Art, my graduate work focused on the failed urban renewal project in East Baltimore known as Old Town Mall. Historically, this area was a diverse and thriving urban marketplace from the early settlement of Baltimore up until the 1970s. After the riots in 1968, the 400 and 500 blocks of Gay Street were cut off to street traffic and redeveloped as a pedestrian shopping mall as part of an urban renewal plan. As a result, it has been in decline ever since and resembles a ghost town today.
For the two-year project, I photographed each of the buildings on the mall, and researched the area’s history and what was being planned for its future. I also spoke with life-long residents and business owners to get a sense of what people remember about the mall and what they hope to see happen there. I combined all of the research and photography in to a self-published book titled “Old Town, East Baltimore.”
Currently, I am working on new project titled “Baltimore: A History, Block by Block,” which is a larger version of the Old Town Mall project. There are ten main streets in Baltimore that I am photographing. Since I started the project this past January, I’ve been focusing on the west side of downtown Baltimore around the Superblock area at Howard and Lexington Streets as well as the general Lexington Market vicinity. I also plan to branch out to other sections of the city including streets like Pennsylvania Avenue, Greenmount Avenue and West Baltimore Street. I’m documenting entire blocks by photographing each building individually or in pairs.
Using a 4×5 view camera, I try to photograph buildings during the time the sun sets on them. I find that a combination of good light and the saturated color of the slide film I shoot with, creates a glimpse or feeling of what the mostly dilapidated buildings were and could be. I’m approaching this work as though I’m building an archive of city blocks as many photographers did roughly 100 years ago before urban renewal and the decline most cities have experienced for the past 50 to 60 years. I want to publish a series of books that tell the stories behind these neglected places and the plans for their revitalization. I also hope to record the conversations I have with locals and include them with the book and photographs. These stories are found in every American city and are important to be heard.
My photography is meant to leave you — not only with a sense of the condition of our cities — but also a feeling of urgency to see that they are improved and preserved and that the rich history behind the architecture and the community is not lost, but rather embraced. These images represent pieces of our history and the changes that continue to shape our future.