From chemical dumping to community building, the industrial urban landscape holds stories of the wonders and the horrors of American history. The aims of the Mapping Baybrook project are to interpret the changes that have occurred in a specific area of Baltimore throughout the arc of American industrialization and to recognize how the stories of everyday people and places have contributed to the development of American history and culture.
The Brooklyn-Curtis Bay section of Baltimore, often referred to as Baybrook, is a group of working-class neighborhoods in the southern peninsula of the city. Baybrook is a rich cultural landscape representing the drama of American industrial development and community building. J. B. Jackson, a foundational scholar in cultural landscape studies, defined landscape as a “concrete three-dimensional, shared reality” and “a composition of man-made or modified spaces to serve as infrastructure or background to our collective experience; and if background seems inappropriately modest, we should remember that in our modern use of the word it means that which underscores not only our identity and presence but also our history.” Baybrook illustrates the three-way relationship between humans, artifacts (the built environment), and nature that Jeremy Korr’s 1997 article, “A Proposed Model for Cultural Landscape Study” described. Baybrook is an urban industrial neighborhood that has always maintained a connection to green space and nature even while industrial development flourished and threatened that very environment.
This once-agricultural area was annexed into Baltimore city in 1918. An influx of European immigrants came to Baltimore to work in its burgeoning industries and live in its distinctive row houses. Many of these immigrants, mostly Polish and German, settled and began to build communities in what became the Baybrook area. The boom following World War II led to rapid growth and development in Baltimore. Like many other urban spaces, the Baybrook community suffered when factories began to head farther south in the 1980s. Yet Baybrook still maintains a marginally industrial identity today. Over time, substandard housing, poverty, and crime ravaged this area where the first American Liberty Ship was built in 1941. In recent years, the area’s demographics have shifted from a predominately-white ethnic neighborhood to include a growing black and Latino population. Today, local community groups—like the Brooklyn & Curtis Bay (Baybrook) Coalition, a non-profit community development corporation—are seeking to revive and rebuild this struggling but historic area on the southern outskirts of Baltimore. Tactics to address post-industrial decay, such as urban renewal, gentrification, and the continued growth of suburbs, have often undervalued the unique built environment and the stories of urban people and places. Rather than ignoring or avoiding such neighborhoods, there is a need for public humanities programming to create both physical and digital spaces for memory, dialogue, and community building.
Mapping Baybrook is part of the larger Preserving Places, Making Spaces project, which operates through the Department of American Studies’ Center for the Study of Place, Community, and Culture (SPCC) at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). The Center’s mission is to create a space for innovative collaborations between scholars, students, and community organizations. The Preserving Places, Making Spaces project seeks to incorporate research, teaching, and public programming on historic but overlooked neighborhoods of Baltimore.
For this project, the university has partnered with the Baybrook Coalition, a non-profit community development corporation that functions as a bridge between the community and outside organizations. The Baybrook Coalition is interested in better understanding the community’s history as a part of developing its future. Bringing humanities scholars together to interpret this history will enrich the public’s understanding of the complexity of urban history. The community is supportive of a project to further interpret its undervalued history. The history of industrial development has often focused on businesses and corporations while overlooking the stories of everyday people who work in those businesses and build the communities that surround them. Mapping Baybrook advocates an integrative approach to understanding place as a central terrain for bringing history and culture to life.