A flat, green field and a bench. That’s what most people think of when they hear the word “park.” That’s what most people get when they go to a park in a city. But muralist Richard Best has a different idea in mind. Inspired by the street art parks of The Wynwood Walls in Miami, 5Pointz in Brooklyn, and Graffiti Alley right here in Baltimore, Best plans on making the largest urban art park in the world. And this particular park wouldn’t just be limited to street art, it’ll be whatever the community wants.The park, a project under the nonprofit Section1, will be a haven for urban creativity and people of all ages.
Best, founder and executive director of Section1, was born and raised in Atlanta. After working for military intelligence for four years and coming out with a degree in Electric Engineering and Intelligence Operations, Best originally worked as a defense consultant and got the opportunity to create art in cities all around the world. In 2010, he landed a cybersecurity job in Maryland. Fueled by his creative and technical sides, Best found out about Johns Hopkins and MICA’s MBA/MA program that perfectly fused his interests. The Section1 Project started as Best’s grad school thesis to create the world’s largest urban art park – right here in Baltimore.
The park isn’t just a “graffiti” park – it’s a multidimensional space most accurately described as an urban art park. Unlike flat land with short grass and a couple of benches, this park acknowledges that it’s in a city. It uses the city as a base for its structure, flowing with the concrete columns that support Baltimore’s infrastructure. It’s an urban space of play, not escape. Located in the heart of Baltimore, behind MICA’s Fox building, underneath the Jones Falls Expressway, and right by Station North, Section1 will take residence in the dynamic concrete jungle. The place is an abandoned, state-owned plot of columns and outer foliage that serves as an illegal dumping ground and home for quite a few feral cats and the work of Baltimore graffiti artists. It’s an organically inorganic forest begging for human creativity.
Through Park Advocate Chris Delaporte, Best met Section1’s now president, Samuel Polakoff. A Baltimore native and enthusiast as well as managing director of Cormony, Polakoff is in charge of Section1’s physical and community development. With an architectural and engineering team including civil engineer Colbert Matze Rosenfelt and environmental engineering firm Urban Green Environmental, Palokoff isn’t creating a space; he’s innovating it. A challenge for most architects, Section1’s design plan isn’t to create a new space but, rather, to work with what it is. The incredibly unique spot already has an unintentionally art park structure. It’s as if the space was built for murals, street art, and skating. But it wasn’t. Polakoff is interested in working naturally with the Baltimore space, even removing invasive species in the bit of foliage that’s included in the outskirts of the space. Polakoff pointed out the beauty of the current plot of land, the wide columns of canvases and attractively unfinished high ceilings. It was all already there, they just need to clean it up and make it functional.
Although Best isn’t originally from Baltimore, Section1 is fundamentally about the Baltimore community. It’s a place for all Baltimore residents, an integration of Baltimore’s usually segregated cultures. Safe yet vibrantly cultured and unique enough for kids and families as well as viciously expressive for adults of all ages, Section1 will be a place of city community and play. Best and his team are working with the community, engaging artists that already do work where the park will be to figure out what they need, what they want, their wishes, and above all, create a place that respects all Baltimoreans and meets their needs. The 3.5 acre space will include an 18,000 square foot skate park, 16,000 square feet of paintable surface, large walls for murals by chosen artists, a seated amphitheater that groups such as the BSO can rent out, and a small trail lining part of the perimeter of the concrete with foliage protecting the space from the distractions of the city.
Best and Polakoff spitballed ideas of potential workshops that the park could host, such as graffiti workshops under the highway or yoga/meditation sessions in the green space. The flexible park will allow for all sorts of activities, and it’s up to the community to bring those ideas to the table. Section1 is just building the foundation. It’s their job to ask the right questions, but it’s the community’s job to make the space truly an urban art park. Overall, the art park can be a space where esteemed artists can participate and contribute, but it’s mainly another structure to support Baltimore’s flourishing indie music/arts scene. Seasoned, international artists will add some more weight to the park, but the majority of the work will be from locals, letting trendsetters take the reins. And the final goal is for the park to be self sufficient, to interact with its users enough to support itself.
So how exactly does Section1 plan on engaging the community? Well, currently, Best gives a tour of the potential space for Section1 at least several times a day, building a network of Baltimore groups and locals that realize and support the project. The space for the park is in the midst of Maryland Institute College of Art, University of Baltimore, and the Station North Arts and Entertainment District. With the vibrant, young, artistic culture surrounding it, Section1 couldn’t be in a better location. The group wants to create a Design Center for the Baltimore design community to facilitate conversation and commitment to developing the city’s creative landscape. The art park is just another piece of this greater Baltimore design schema. At this year’s Artscape, Section1 had a booth where anyone could donate to paint a repurposed brick acquired from Details that would eventually be used to help create the park. Through the donations for the bricks, the group raised an amazing $10,000 for the park.
The project has an eight member board of directors and a highly qualified volunteer staff that includes six MBAs as well as a social media team dedicated to spreading the word as well as creating crowdfunding ventures. The current struggle is getting local groups to invest conceptually into the project as it’s still in its developing stages. But Section1 wants not only to create this park, but also to serve as an example and consultant for other cities and groups that want to create similar spaces. Cities were developed on the desires of a society that is outdated. According to Best, Section1 wants to target the growing demographic of Baltimore citizens who love it for what it is, who embrace the city. Section1’s urban art park is just a start to developing the city’s wastelands and readapting Baltimore for today’s reality and culture.
Photos by Kelly Louise Barton