Thursday, May 17, 2007

"This bottle never sold"


A couple of weeks ago, we helped clean up the stream in our local park, and found a bottle from the American Brewery. Heavy and clear, deeply embossed, it is Baltimore working-class history that you can hold in your hand.

The old brewery made the paper again today - Baltimore's biggest craziest abandoned architectural landmark is one step closer to new ownership and redevelopment. Humanim, a private social services agency, is due to occupy the building after a 35 million dollar redevelopment by Streuver Bros. Eccles & Rouse and Gotham Developers.

There's some criticism of this deal in the paper, implications that Mayor Sheila Dixon (who, say what you will, she's been acting more like a mayor and less like a psychotic gangster since the elected mayor moved on to Annapolis - it's a savvy tactic, and if we could be sure that she'd act like this for another four years, I'd say let's vote for her. BUT WE CAN'T. SO DON'T.) ... errr, moving on... in the paper, a couple of people criticize the procurement process and imply that Sheila's getting something out of the deal. I suppose they think selling the building to the developers for $5000 sounds like a sweetheart deal.

The fact is, that building has been sitting vacant in the middle of one of the worst neighborhoods in the city for decades. Coaxing someone - anyone - to invest thirty-five MILLIONS DOLLAHS in there was a large piece of work. It is pretty unlikely that Streuver and Gotham are going to see that money back any time soon.

In honor of the potential resurrection of one of my favorite places, here's something I wrote about the building last year:

June 25, 06

The Baltimore Sun this morning had a gigantic, angling-for-a-Pulitzer article this morning on the neighborhood around the American Brewery. It's a great article. The reporter, Eric Siegel, has been working on it for more than a year. He explains the cyclic nature of neighborhood decay and neglect with good, simple clarity, and doesn't ever stoop to blame. The photos are very good too.

When my husband worked for the city housing dept., he was the czar of abandoned properties, and the American Brewery is a big one. He was involved in trying to tempt investment in it, and it's a tempting building - there's nothing else like it. So we ended up driving by it a lot, showing people this architectural confection smack in the middle of one of the most smacked-down neighborhoods in Baltimore.

The neighborhoods we take people - even urban design professionals and veteran social-justice types - they're appalled.

Usually, when we park opposite the building and ogle its 5-storied insanity from inside the car, I will mention, "I've been inside that thing actually." But the building itself is conversation enough, and I don't go into detail.

So here's the detail. I'm a little fuzzy, it's been a while.

Hot spring day, moving into summer. Probably June, what do I know. Before 1991 but after 1988. Paul Flinton and I were at Sisson's chatting with our friend the bartender, Scott Carberry I'm pretty sure. We weren't drinking, I think we just went in to say hi. I don't know why I was hanging out with Paul - he was one of my boyfriend's best friends and a good guy but I can't say we would have sought each other out for company. Anyway, we were talking to Scotty about buildings and neighborhoods I guess and Scott mentioned the American Brewery. We'd never heard of it. He explained where it was and told us it was un-miss-able: "It looks like the Addams Family's house on acid."

Paul and I looked at each other, hopped off our bar stools and headed out.

After tacking around in the WORST neighborhood either of us had ever seen, we caught a glimpse of what had to be it. We couldn't believe we'd never heard of this apparition, it truly was the most haunted-house looking thing ever to be built of bricks and mortar.

We parked, we looked for a way in. It was abandoned and fenced off even then, but we easily got thru the fence. Paul had a moment of fairly sensible trepidation. "Are you sure you want to do this?" Of course I was sure, why on earth not? "Um, because I don't know if I could defend you."

Defend me? I actually had to ask him what the fuck he was talking about. After all, I didn't think I could 'defend' him either. I just always forget that as a female, I have extra vulnerabilities. He was thinking about junkie rapists hiding in the building - I was thinking about giant rats. It was dear of him, and kind of naive. Junkies aren't necessarily rapists - junkies are necessarily thieves.

But we went in and he needn't have worried. We saw nothing alive in that space. No rats, no pigeons, no dogs, no fucking spiders or flies. That creeped me out a lot. There was pigeon shit, and there was one instance of human shit, but other than that the place was sterile. If a crumbling filthy building can be called sterile, I mean I wouldn't want an episiotomy there, but I'm just saying the buglessness was weird.

The building itself was amazing. One wing had wooden floors and we couldn't walk there. We could see sunlight through the cracks between the boards. The other wing had concrete floors and was sound as a dollar. The stairs were fine, the windows were big and it was such a bright day that it wasn't even dark in there. Must have been a nice place to work.

We kept climbing, and every floor was wonderful. We found graffitti that girls had left - I envisioned gangs of tough, feral girls having their meetings and rituals in this Victorian Mad Max cave, like a sorority but with cheaper liquor, and knives. The views kept getting better. The brewing machines, which were multistory iron and steel colossi, were fascinating - industrial, complex, Giger-esque, sort of organic looking.

Which was why, when we climbed a last iron stairway into the cupola and saw two old-fashioned push buttons, size of quarters and made of Bakelite, a white one labeled "ON" and a black one labeled "OFF," and Paul said, "Go ahead," I said "Nuh-uh. You."

I envisioned the brewing machine shuddering to life, tearing free of its brick housing and lurching down Gay Street toward the harbor like a clanky Godzilla. Paul laughed and said, "No fucking way!" and we marveled at the 360-degree view and Paul took a bunch of pictures that turned out pretty cool, and we made our way down out of the cool sunny dust-moted building and back into the stinking hot Baltimore day.

It felt like hours had passed, but when we got back to Sisson's, laughing with adrenaline, Scotty's shift wasn't over yet and we told him the whole story. Maybe Scotty remembers.

(5/17/07 - Scotty did remember, and got in touch, which was nice.)
Art Distelrath's excellent article on the breweries of Gay St.