A $30,000 grant from PNC Bank is more than icing on the cake for Upper Fell’s Point’s Billie Holiday Project, a block transformation slated for the 200 block of S. Durham St., an alley street.
“The original plan was to do painted screens on the block,” said Steve Schwei, who is managing the project. “As we got going, it just sort of grew.”
Thanks to the cash infusion, it has grown quite a bit. The project will now add five murals and a mosaic–all honoring Billie Holiday–to the painted screens.
Why the Billy Holiday theme? At one time, she lived on the block.
“It’s not even clear which house she lived in exactly,” said Schwei, adding that 217 is commonly identified as her one-time residence.
Joe Rizza will construct the mosaic. Painting murals will be artists Michael Kirby, Bridget Cimino, Anne Kotleba and James Eichelberger. Schwei noted that the number of muralists that answered the Billie Holiday Project’s call for artists exceeded the number of planned murals, so some of the artists will be collaborating.
“We decided to use all of the artists who applied,” he said.
The $30,000 in grant money will cover the murals and mosaic; the Upper Fell’s Point Improvement Association will cover the rest of the expenses of the project, which Schwei estimates at an additional $1,500.
The block will be renamed “Lady Day Way,” as “Lady Day” was Holiday’s nickname. Since a simple street sign wouldn’t do the flashy crooner justice, the Billie Holiday Project will be spelling out “Lady Day Way” on the road itself, in artistic lettering with details such as music notes between the words.
The words will be arranged in Belgian block, the same road surface of yesteryear that covers the waterfront’s Thames St. On this front, Schwei noted that the project has received significant help from First District Councilman Jim Kraft.
“He knew where some available Belgian block was in a city yard somewhere,” he said, adding that Kraft would arrange for the repaving of the street around the block once “Lady Day Way” is in place.
“The Belgian block is not going to fill the entire street; we don’t want all that rumbling,” said Schwei. “I think that’s what helped sell the project.”
Additional help came from Fell’s Point Main Street, which is acting as the project’s sales agent, Schwei added. Fell’s Point Main Street’s nonprofit status removes taxes from the equation.
Schwei, who lives on the 200 block of S. Durham St., said that a transformation is just what his block needs. There are five vacant houses, he said, and the rest are a 50/50 mix of rented and owner-occupied properties.
The Billie Holiday Project is still working on artist agreements and getting homeowners to sign off on mural designs. One of the murals will be on the rear of the Fell’s Point Corner Theatre.
“We want to paint a picture of the Royal Theatre in West Baltimore,” Schwei said, “with Billie signing an autograph for a child out front.”
Schwei describes himself as a casual fan of the singer.
“I listen to some of her music, and I like it, but that’s not what motivated me,” he said. “We’re recognizing a celebrated person that came from Baltimore, and transforming the block.”
by Erik Zygmont