Baltimore Press

Greg Fletcher’s History of Empty Lots

Greg Fletcher is sitting at the window of his renovated art studio. He motions past the shade. “This isn’t nostalgia,” he begins,. “I remember when this area was bustling with activity and commerce. These places used to house people I knew. It is about how the earth is taking it all back.” He is referring to “Ghosts,” his current series of paintings of vacant storefronts in the surrounding neighborhood of Washington Hill, the place of his childhood. “ I used to draw on the roofs of these buildings,” his dreadlocks bounce as he motions upward with his nose, “until my foot went through the roof once, and the next time I came back, the whole roof had completely collapsed. I don’t do that anymore.”

A preeminent Baltimore artist, Fletcher’s work has been commissioned by institutions as diverse as Artscape and the Miller Scholarship Foundation; his work hangs in the permanent collections of the Heritage Museum, Alex Haley Museum, and the Carter Collection; and he has over 20 solo exhibitions behind him.

Fletcher’s studio sits within Baltimore’s Jewish enclave in the mid-nineteenth century. By his birth a century later in 1954, the neighborhood was a medley of Jews, Blacks, Indians, and Poles. “There were blacks and whites living side by side” Fletcher says, “it wasn’t segregated as such. You could go downtown to the department stores, but if you were black you couldn’t put a hat on directly; you had to put something over your head. In any case, that maybe should have been the thing for everyone, because I don’t want to put on a sweaty hat on my head. But it was racism, simply.” And then thundered down the sixties: locally, with the riots at the Patterson Park swimming pools, and nationally, with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“It was only in the last year that some of the buildings that had been burned out during that time have been tom down.” Flechter says, while discounting the idea that the riots spurred the white flight into the suburbs. By the mid-sixties, he pointed out, the shopkeepers were getting old, and their children had become doctors, lawyer, bankers, many things, but not shopkeepers.

Moreover, the Jewish community had began migrating northwest by the fifties, up through Druid Hill and into Lower Park Heights.

“What is interesting is that the black population seemed to follow them where ever they went” Fletcher says. “You would not believe lower Park Heights and upper Park Heights as it was thirty years ago. It was a different place. The Jewish people went as far as Pikesville, and Blacks moved into the area, and then to Owings Mills, and Blacks moved there, too.”

After the long decline, the neighborhood had a rebirth of sorts in the early eighties, when the city redeveloped the block where Fletcher’s studio is located. Since then, the area has become a bright sliver of homeowners and artists amist the decay. But it has not been gentrified, still holding the shadows of a past era.

“There are specific things that happen in a specific place, consistently over the years,” Fletcher says. “Right around the comer was a notorious pool hall, and there were plenty of knife fights. Even after it was tom down, people were still getting held up there. Compare that to up the street where Reverend Wise lived. Even though that is a busy comer, no building has been built there since they tore down the Reverend’s house. Nothing ever happens there, it just seems to wait for something positive to happen. Then there was the Sierra Club, they tore the bar down, but the
old men who used to hang out there, they still come down. They drive their cars down from wherever they live now, and have their conversations.”

The midwife who delivered him had lived in the building across the street from his studio. The house he had been bom in had stood less than a block away, a tiny four-room rowhouse that he shared with four siblings and his mother, Ethel. It was tom down five years ago to make room for a parking lot. The family moved to the Lafayette Projects, several blocks away when he was still an infant. Those projects were imploded by the city three years ago, but at the time a vast improvement for the family.

Before he was bom, his mother lived on the second floor of Grossman’s, the neighborhood grocery, where his older brother had later worked. It was were she would meet her future husband. This building was tom down last month, and on the wall of his studio is a patch of the old tin ceiling he scavenged from the debris. And there was David Friedman’s store, where Fletcher was the only child allowed to pick out his own cookies. Now another parking lot. What remains are the memories

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Fletcher renders the oil paintings with classical technique and form, even though he is laigely self-trained. His preparation of the canvas alone takes weeks, with layers of rabbitskin glue and a cure of white lead. The result is paintings that glow with interior colors, at once unique and familiar. The histoiy of empty lots is not a historian’s lecture, hung on the wall in the form of a chalkboard, but a pooling of brightness rippling just underneath the visible canvas, of hard urban truths caught in the per-iferal vision. That his subject matter is often our streets, and that his knowledge so unique, can it be surprising that Fletcher creates paintings that change ones perception of the city?

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