Nick Wisniewski remembers getting a tour of the CopyCat in 2001 when he was still a freshman in art school. The windows were tall, the floors were concrete, the large open spaces were bathed in natural light, and — perhaps most importantly — the rent was cheap.
Wisniewski said he got the impression from the owner that as long as he and his art school friends weren’t doing hard drugs, they were free to do whatever they wanted to the space.
For just $150 a month, Wisniewski joined a community of artists who used two-by-fours, scrap metal, extension cords and self-taught carpentry to turn an unlicensed former bottle cap factory on Guilford Avenue into the pulsating heart of Baltimore’s warehouse arts scene.
A mix of locals and artists drawn from more expensive cities, like New York or Los Angeles, found an open-minded community of performers, musicians and show promoters who were literally building their own space in the CopyCat and other postindustrial buildings nearby. The unique do-it-yourself culture became a launching pad for artists who couldn’t afford to live anywhere else and a welcoming space for queer folks.
But a mix of gentrification, a pandemic, and a nationwide clampdown on such unregulated warehouse spaces has suffocated the city’s warehouse arts scene in recent years. The CopyCat is now the last major warehouse arts space in Baltimore. The massive, redbrick building in the Greenmount West neighborhood of North Baltimore may look the same from the outside, but residents have been moving out and the inside is being gutted as the owner finally tries to get it licensed with the city.
A group of remaining residents, led by the artist Indigo Null, has feuded with management for years. It might look like a typical fight between tenants and a landlord who has been raising rents, but the residents say it’s a struggle over something bigger: Once the CopyCat is gone, where can Baltimore’s low-income artists create their own space?
“A lot of these underground, DIY spaces that emerged were spaces where landlords just gave people blank slates, free reign, which is illegal, right?” Wisniewski said. “But that’s the paradox. How do you give that kind of agency and freedom while still being legal and up to code? It’s a real conundrum.”
The labyrinthine CopyCat once housed hundreds of residents and had a dozen or so practice and performance spaces. But Null said a recent canvass of the building found fewer than 100 residents and as few as two performance spaces left.
Charles Lankford, the building’s owner, did not respond to multiple interview requests.
The building management sent an email to tenants in May that said plans call for carving up some remaining large spaces.
“Whatever the end results, The Copycat will not be the same,” wrote Frank Yantosca, the building’s leasing agent, in the email. “We are truly hoping for an improved version of what we have always been, but as of today, we just don’t know what that looks like.”
Baltimore once had numerous unregulated spaces like the CopyCat. Then a 2016 fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland, California, killed 36 people and put a nationwide spotlight on unregulated warehouse spaces. Baltimore set up a Safe Arts Space task force after the Ghost Ship fire to bring the city’s underground warehouse arts scene up to code.
Two people interviewed for this story recalled seeing a concert at the Bell Foundry, also in Greenmount West, where the floor bowed under the weight of hundreds of people. The city shut down that 13,000-square-foot space shortly after the Ghost Ship fire. It’s since been renovated and is being turned into apartments, which still irks some artists.
“The Bell Foundry was a beautiful painted-up space,” painter Zen Xaria said. “Now, it is gray. They painted it gray, and they’re calling it the Foundry Lofts — and it looks like a prison.”
Xaria used to live on a floor of the Annex, a former office space down the block from the CopyCat that is also owned by Lankford. Xaria was part of a group that threw DIY drag shows and recruited diverse performers who wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to try drag. In October 2020, the Annex closed and Xaria moved into the CopyCat, but they and their roommates were evicted in this month.
“What other place is there for us to go? It’d be different if we had somewhere else to go. We really don’t,” Xaria said. “And that’s the real issue is that everywhere is being gentrified. We can’t afford to be anywhere.”
The CopyCat is the only such space remaining. Improvements were made to the building after the Ghost Ship fire, but it has never been properly licensed as a residential rental building.
Some residents have been holding a rent strike to protest the building’s deteriorating condition. Null and others paid for an independent property inspection in 2020 that found numerous problems, like rodent and bug infestations; unsafe wiring; mold; water damage; flaking, old paint that likely contained lead, and more.
Null said the inspector ballparked the renovation costs at $10 million to $20 million.
That’s significantly lower than what Ellen Janes thinks is needed. Janes is the executive director of the Central Baltimore Partnership, a nonprofit that has been trying to make safer spaces for artists without displacing them.
Janes said she thinks the CopyCat needs about $70 million worth of renovations.
“It’s extremely expensive,” Janes said. “It’s a huge building, and it’s a rambling and complex building.”
The partnership recently teamed up with other groups to buy Area 405, a building down East Oliver Street from the CopyCat, for about $3.8 million, more than 20 times its previous sale price in 2002. A developer had been eyeing the property for condos, which would have displaced dozens of artists who work in studios there, as well as the Station North Tool Library, one of the country’s biggest libraries for lending power tools and teaching classes like woodworking.
Now, the plan is to increase the number of work studios for artists, keep rents affordable, and possibly build additional housing units for artists.
But the CopyCat is not Area 405.
“Anyone I’ve spoken to in the development community does not want to buy that building,” said the Rev. Michele Ward, a member-at-large of the Greenmount West Community Association. “Because it needs so much work, so much repair work done.”
Ward owns a rowhouse facing the CopyCat building and said she can’t imagine any single developer investing the millions of dollars needed to renovate the building without simultaneously jacking up the rent — a devastating blow to the working-class artists living there.
Ward moved to Baltimore from Philadelphia in 2018 largely because she wanted to live in Greenmount West, the neighborhood around the CopyCat. She called it a “unicorn” neighborhood because it’s racially and economically mixed, LGBTQ-friendly and full of artists.
Property values have been rising in Greenmount West, and the home vacancy rate has fallen sharply. Ward said some longtime renters in the neighborhood have been leaving as more newcomers buy homes, and while some transplants like her appreciate the CopyCat and its history, not everyone else does.
“Unless multiple developers. who are willing to make a serious financial investment and are committed to that neighborhood experiment that we have in Greenmount West, are willing to pool their resources and save that building, it won’t happen,” Ward predicted. “It’ll continue to fall into disrepair until a developer from out of state with a lot of cash to burn will buy it and then turn it into expensive lofts.”
The area around Amtrak’s Penn Station, including Station North, Midtown and Greenmount West, has seen increased investment from developers in recent years as rail commuting to jobs in Washington, D.C., has grown.
But without a space like the CopyCat, its current and former residents say Baltimore will lose a key link in its arts ecosystem. The CopyCat for decades has provided a space where artists could showcase their work, collaborate, practice and perform with practically no barriers or costs, and push the boundaries of their art. It became a launch pad for artists with nowhere else to go.
The Baltimore rapper DDM performed a few shows in what he called the CopyCat’s “golden age,” from 2009 to 2014.
“I liked it because there was no judgment,” DDM said. “It allowed for you to be your most authentic self, without editing yourself.”
The muralist Gaia recalled “holding a forty” in a hallway of the CopyCat and talking to the singer Grimes after she performed to an intimate crowd of about 20 people.
“It used to be a club,” Gaia said of the CopyCat. “It was the engine of the nightlife of the DIY art scene. It was literally pulsating.”
Jimmy Joe Roche was one of several New Yorkers who moved to the CopyCat in 2004 and 2005 as part of the art collective Wham City. He recalled watching his friend, Ed Schrader, pull a CD rack out of a pile of trash, connect a contact microphone to it, and start hitting it with pieces of metal, making a rhythmic sound. Schrader would go on to tour internationally and is still releasing music as part of the duo Ed Schrader’s Music Beat.
“I lived in a cubby hole above a piano, and they charged me $30 a month,” Schrader said. “It gave us all a space to spontaneously combust with ideas.”
Without the CopyCat, Schrader said, “we’d all be working at Guitar Center.”
Those low rents are now gone, and the surrounding neighborhood, once pockmarked with vacant buildings, is one of Baltimore’s trendier neighborhoods. Some current and former CopyCat residents feel like they aided unwittingly in gentrifying the area.
”Developers use artists like window dressing,” Schrader said. “Once they’re done using the artist, they dispose of them and put up condos the artists can’t afford … and then you’re left with a bunch of people in condos listening to Ed Sheeran.”
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Null is among about 15 people, mostly queer or trans, who have faced eviction in recent months. Null and their roommates won an eviction appeal in June. Management at the CopyCat was unable to produce a rental agreement, and the judge noted the building’s shoddy accounting practices.
That could open a path for Null and their roommates to resume paying a $2,700 monthly rent for a large open space on the fifth floor. But Null, who moved to the CopyCat in 2015, acknowledged that much of the community that once existed in the building has “collapsed.”
“I came in on the tail end, quite honestly, and I was here just long enough to see how cool it was before it got murdered,” Null said.
Other residents, like Cam Alvarez, are leaving Baltimore. Alvarez fronts the band Period Bomb and organized a weeklong music festival in June based out of True Vine record store on Charles Street. Alvarez was part of the rent strike at the CopyCat after one of their pets died from an infection they believed to be from a mouse infestation at the building.
Alvarez agreed to leave the building in mid-July to avoid an eviction on their record and is headed back to the Miami area, where they have an archaeology job lined up.
Alvarez spoke at a rally in June with Null outside the courthouse in Baltimore to protest the evictions.
“If you guys really think that Baltimore is going to be just as fun and cool a place to live in without any of the artists, any of the show organizers, any of the public art installers that make this city beautiful,” Alvarez told the crowd, “you’re in for a really dark, disappointing dystopia.”