White Marsh, Maryland,
sits just north of Baltimore, convenient to both the
Beltway and I-95. Its a manufactured communitya
settlement, really ("marsh" being a euphemism for "swamp")with
all the amenities. Theres a Wal-Mart, a Red Lobster,
a Best Buy, a Target. The former centerpiece of this layout
is the White Marsh Town Center, an aging giant of a mall
that, while still vital, represents the apex of the old
ideas of post-urban commercial development. Nowadays the
action is at The Avenue.
The Avenue is just across
the street from the Town Center, flanked on both sides
by fully stocked restaurant parks. It was constructed
a few years back as an antidote to the sanitized suburban
strip malls. What it is, exactly, is a fake main street.
Cookie-cutter shops including an Old Navy and a Barnes
& Noble are lined up on either side of a small street
complete with angled parking and little side streets,
which lead in both directions to giant parking lots. These
lots face the backs of the stores. On foot from there
the Muzak becomes audible; the speakers are camouflaged
in the flower boxes.
The idea here is to give
the soccer moms a sense of community without forcing them
to parallel park their SUVs. The ruse comes complete
with sidewalk seating at the restaurants and a giant fountain
that serves as a kind of town square. Across from this,
at the center of it all, is an 18-screen, climate controlled,
stadium-seated, eight-dollar-a-show General Cinema theater
that, on any given Friday night, is filled to near capacity.
But drive south awhile...past
Towson, Loch Raven, Waverly, Guilford...through Hampden,
Druid Hill, Mount Vernon...down to Pratt Street, then
take a right. Baltimores Little Italy is an oasis
of sorts, a testament to the power of neighborhoods to
overcome the pitfalls of urban existence. And there, every
Friday night from early July to late August, at the corner
of High and Stiles streets, they show movies on the side
of a building.
It started with the parking
garage. Little Italy has restaurantslots
of them. Places like DaMimmo, Vaccaros, Amiccis...places
where some of the finest Italian cuisine in the country
is served. So when the parking problem became more than
they could handle, they got together and put up a garage
at the corner of Pratt and President. Its a tasteful
structure, but that corner previously served as the "Gateway
to Little Italy," a little courtyard with a mural naming
each of the restaurants. Nobody wanted to see the mural
go, so the Little Italy Restaurant Association (LIRA)
commissioned a new one, to be painted on the bricks above
the parking lot at High and Stiles.
The city gave the go-ahead,
and work began. Since its rather difficult to paint
on brick the artist suggested a plywood backing, which
was soon erected. Then the city stepped in again. On bricks,
thats a mural...on plywood its a billboard.
Billboards are not allowed. "Dont paint the plywood"
is what the city said. A thorough reading of the cease-and-desist
order revealed that they never said, "Take the plywood
down." So it hung, through the end of 1998 and the beginning
of 1999, on the side of this building, above this parking
lot, in the center of Little Italy.
Until someone at an early
1999 LIRA meeting remarked in passing, as a joke really,
that it "looks like a drive-in. Why dont you show
Mary Ann Creccio, the president
of LIRA, had seen this done before, on a trip to Sicily.
She asked around, gauged the interest, and found support
among the residents and businesses in the area. Before
things got too serious, however, there was the small matter
of where to put the projector. Eighty-eight-year-old John
Pente, whose home is directly across from the screen,
had only one question: "Is this what the community wants?"
First problem solved, Mary Ann thought to herself, "Who
do we call to show a movie?" She now recalls: "I called
Tom Kiefarber, who owns the Senator Theater, which I thought
is sort of the last great epic movie house."
The Senator has its own
story, of course, and its a fitting place for the
Little Italy festival to begin. The Senator is one of
the last remaining single-screen historic movie houses
in the country, the sort of place that a hundred neighborhoods
now wish they hadnt closed down in the eighties.
Tom Kiefarber came down to check out the scene, found
the location perfect, and got to work immediately.
By June of 1999 John Pentes
third-floor bedroom housed a 16mm projector, the church
had donated some folding chairs, a makeshift one-speaker
sound system had been rigged, and the first annual Little
Italy Open Air Film Festival was underway.
Its hard to say why,
exactly...maybe its the beauty and ease of the location,
maybe the timing was simply perfect, but by the end of
that first season the festival had been featured on the
front page of the New York Times, in the Chicago
Tribune, on CNN, on the Today Show, and in many international
One would expect, with
that kind of instant success, that folks would lose interest.
One would expect that the novelty would die down. But
even without continued media interest, the festival continues
to grow, peaking last year with 4,800 people at a showing
of Life Is Beautiful. It rained the night they
showed Casablanca...500 people happily enjoyed
This sort of thing goes
against all conventional wisdom. The screen, while visible,
is not huge, and the sound is average (though it has been
significantly upgraded from the original one-speaker setup).
The seating is first come, first served and the good seats
fill up fast. The crowd can be difficult to navigate,
and the whole affair is subject to Mother Natures
more importantly, howhas
this experiment succeeded so resoundingly?
Perhaps it has something
to do with the fact that the flower boxes contain only
flowers, the side streets lead to businesses, homes, and
other streets, and the parking lot is fun. While
incredibly well organized, the festival is not managed,
and the whole affair is free and open to the public.
The program has evolved
from an all-Italian flavor to more varied fare, with selections
including Diner, Some Like It Hot, and Duck
Soup. The films are chosen by vote at LIRA meetings
(though every year begins with Moonstruck and closes
with Cinema Paradiso) and are based, in part, on
what is available in a 16mm print. Roland Keh, vice president
of LIRA and also a restaurateur, tracks down classic cartoons
to complement each film.
There are no plans to stop,
and no signs of letting up. Mary Ann Creccio is visibly
excited as she talks about the festival, and cautiously
optimistic as she remarks that "Our future is in the hands
of 91-year-old John Pente." Mr. Pente again...the man
who graciously lets equipment and personnel into his home
every week because its in the best interest of the
community. Because there is a community.
If it doesnt seem
impossible, it certainly seems too good to be true: that
a city with the problems Baltimore hasand
they are manycould
not only embrace but continue to support this quirky dream.
Equally plausible, it should be noted, is that it makes
perfect sense and is in fact only the beginning. Either
way it is comforting to know that if one were to go away
for a time and return many years hence to revisit old
memories there is no way they will have torn it down to
build a parking lot.