The Asphalt Garden
Parking does not a downtown make. If all you want is a place to park, you should consider staying home, where — theoretically — your car is already parked quite conveniently.
That said, I’m not above admiring a really class-act parking lot. Just a few weeks ago, artist James Woodfill and I went parking-lot hopping together in the Crossroads District, where some parking lots have achieved a level of awesomeness that might well be unparalleled. Woodfill took me on a parking-lot tour to make a point.
“I’m tired of the city’s hard-on for parking lots,” I had griped after running into him one afternoon. His eyes widened. “I’m obsessed with parking lots,” he confessed. “Not with making more of them but with making the ones we have more spectacular.”
And Woodfill has done that with more than one parking lot in town. It’s his light sculpture “Pulse,” built in collaboration with architects at El Dorado Inc., that fills the garage across from City Hall with blue light and sound, a piece the city commissioned under its One Percent for Art program, which makes sure there’s some art component in every new public building.
At the redeveloped old Freight House just north of Union Station — now home to Lydia’s, Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue and the City Tavern — Woodfill worked with El Dorado to choreograph the parking-lot lights several years back.
“The first time I was back here, it was a field,” he says, standing on the asphalt. “It’s great to see everything that’s happening down here now, but man, it was cool when it was just a big dirt field.”
This was where the city’s grid dissolved into rail yards, a piece of history Woodfill mirrors in his lighting design. The first row of lights — with white bulbs forming signal-like shapes atop functional metal posts — is nice and even, reflecting the tidy grid that lies just outside the lot. To the south, though, the light sculptures are less evenly placed, respecting the field that once stood in what is now an orderly city lot.
From behind a spherical sculpture in the lot, looking to the east, the shape of the lights becomes a circle, one that from this perspective appears to be exactly the same size as the Western Auto sign. For the lampposts, Woodfill chose bulbs that complemented the KCTV Channel 5 weather tower. That was before someone went and made ’em red, white and blue in a post-9/11 frenzy.
“As an artist,” Woodfill says, “you can’t build all of that, but you can look at it, and you can help other people look at it. The parking lot is the perfect place to do it, because your adventures start here.”
It took the Woodfill Parking Lot Tour 2004 to make me realize that in the Crossroads, many owners of little surface lots have already made parking an art.
We walked to one of Woodfill’s favorite nooks — a place where a couple of tiny parking lots converge, with alleys going out onto Wyandotte, Central, 18th Street and 19th Street. A lone grill sat unattended that Saturday morning. Short brick buildings surrounded us, but we could see out in every direction. Small lots like these give pedestrians what Woodfill calls “viewports” — places where the neighborhood opens up panoramically, allowing you to really take in your surroundings.
“I want to put signs out on the street with arrows that say ‘Go over there,’” he says. We agreed that this was a good spot for cooking out, easily rivaling any suburban deck. The details of the buildings — arched windows, a metal beam connecting two offset parts of one building, ledges for potted plants — are best enjoyed from this vantage point.
“I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t say I wish this place were more dense,” Woodfill says of downtown. “It’d probably be a lot more vibrant. But it is what it is. It’s always a question of what is here.”
What’s here are places like Smith and Burstert, the high-end antique-rug store. Owner Bruce Burstert painted the brick building green because the color reminded him of a lawn, and it rises up beside one of the nicest parking lots in town, if not the nicest. The ivy-covered, west-facing walls provide a lush backdrop for the lot, and the chain-link fence teems with orange trumpet vines. The parking lot has won local landscaping awards because of these attractive vines, though Burstert finds the honor totally embarrassing. After all, they were already there — he just added on instead of whacking them down.
“It’s just grown on its own accord,” says the experienced gardener and landscaper. “I’ve just planted a trumpet vine here and there…. I can’t believe we actually won an award for doing nothing.”
What works about the trumpet vines is not so much that they hide the parking lot — something that is accomplished much less stunningly in imposing Plaza garages — but that they hide the fence. I mean, come on, let’s face it. Chain-link is basically a giant “fuck you.” Here, though, flowers decorate what is now a respectful division between inside the lot and out, and it’s easy on the eyes, not rickety and rough.
Coincidentally, I had attended a party in this same spot the night before our tour. Despite the roomy and exquisite downtown loft above Smith and Burstert, everyone hung out in the parking lot. This with the legendary James Trotter spinning funk and soul records inside, no less. It was a great spot from which to appreciate the rooftop garden bathed in pastel pink and blue light — Cork Marcheschi’s installation known as the “Serenity Garden” — atop the newly renovated building at 20th Street and Main.
As we passed this lot on our tour, Woodfill posed a theoretical question. “Is the goal of a parking-lot area to kind of get it to go away? That’s what the Plaza does. It’s a model the city likes. But I don’t know — this is kind of nice. You have to allow yourself to see the parking lot as a site where something can happen.”
I am familiar with the argument that garages are better because they use the smallest amount of land to house the largest number of cars. Fine. But we still haven’t filled up all the buildings that are already here. Ours is not a dense city. We could compare ourselves to New York City and lament every bit of unbuilt land downtown, or we could consider it our good fortune. In New York, you’d have to go to a rooftop to get the kind of city garden that exists at Smith and Burstert — and could exist in every one of these surface lots.
Artist and gallery owner Jim Leedy gives people visual cues to enter his lots. On the west side of Baltimore just off Southwest Boulevard is the Opie Building, which Leedy rents to young artists as cheap, raw apartment spaces. In front of the building is a former loading dock, where potted plants sit among lawn chairs and another grill. Across the street is a small gravel parking lot, also owned by Leedy, where he’s installed a concrete sculpture to welcome people. Leedy has united the two sides of the street, connecting people who work and live in the surrounding buildings. I’ve stopped and had many conversations with dog walkers and gallerygoers in this lot. When the weather’s nice, it’s essentially a public square, drawing people who just want to shoot the shit and take it easy in an atmosphere created by plants and sculptures and benches.
Suddenly, this isn’t just a city block. It expands to include everything that touches it, by lot or by alley. That’s what the Crossroads, one of downtown’s most vibrant neighborhoods, really is. Who can tell me that a parking lot isn’t an efficient use of space?