Baltimore Startups

Streets Made Famous In The Wire Being Converted To Innovation District

Richard May Spearheading Initiative To Turn West Baltimore Into Innovation Hub

Richard-May-1 Streets Made Famous In The Wire Being Converted To Innovation District

Richard May and others are spearheading an effort to turn West Baltimore into Innovation Village (photo: nextcity.org)

David Simon’s breakout HBO hit series The Wire has been hailed by some as the best series ever on television. Most of that is because it teeters very closely to the line of reality in the old drug trade in West Baltimore. Shot in Baltimore City, the five seasons of The Wire chronicle the lives of drug pins like Avon Barksdale, Stringer Bell and Marlow Stansfield. Many say these characters are all loosely based on actual players in the Baltimore drug trade like Little Melvin who ran the drug trade in the 70’s and 80’s. At the turn of the century he had a recurring role in the series.

This is all written from experience. Having grown up in Baltimore and lived in Westport (Wire Season 2) and the old Federal Hill, and having attended high school in the city. Many who’ve followed my writing over the last decade know two things, The Wire is my favorite show and innovation is my favorite thing.

That’s why when I read “The Great Rebrand Of West Baltimore” yesterday I spent hours deep diving Richard May and the folks that are banding together to turn West Baltimore into a haven for innovation, and entrepreneurship.

Growing up an Asian mixed kid, who was also a DJ my friends thought I was nuts when I would take the bus to Mondawmin Mall to buy records at Metro Stereo and Music Liberated. A decade later, Mondawmin Mall’s DMV was always the quickest place to cop a license. Running around as a preteen I could catch a glimpse of Sisqo and the boys harmonizing on the second floor at Mondawmin when they weren’t working downtown at the Inner Harbor. I was oblivious to the fact that the same guys I was buying Kenny B mixtapes were slinging on the side.

That was until I heard my first gun shot.

I used to buy my Gemini mixers and Numark gear out of the back of trunk of a dude I met at Mondawmin I would page him on his Pagenet beeper and we would meet at the mall or downtown by Lexington Market. I found my fist hustle, my first soiree into entrepreneurship, writing papers for dudes on my block that had better things to do then their school work. $20-$30 bucks a week from each of them and as long as they got at least C’s I got paid. I didn’t realize at the time I was earning respect.

Years before David Simon’s series I picked up the nickname Wire, not because of phone taps and Heroin trade but because I was the wiry framed, nerdy Asian mixed kid that could run surveillance camera wires or program the latest Radio Shack scanner. I still didn’t know why exactly I was doing this, but it was fun and I was making money. It meant I could skateboard past anyone on the block and they would nod their head at me or tell me to be careful. Of course that was on the east side. I got similar respect on the west side though, for my antics and trips to the record stores.

I’ve learned now that those first looks, when my 11 or 12 year old ass would pop out change in bags and one dollar bills for the latest Miss Tony pressing weren’t happiness or jovial looks. They were more looks of “Who the fuck is this”. After a little while I earned my respect on the west side too. That’s what The Wire is all about the underlying lesson is respect.

But I digress… This isn’t a biographical piece on my life as a crazy child. It’s a piece about the pride I have as a journalist covering startups and an entrepreneur and founder myself.

You see a guy named Richard May started working on plans four years ago to turn some of the neighborhoods in West Baltimore that many perceive as the worst neighborhoods in the city to a thriving entrepreneurial hub that will rival Boston’s Seaport or West Philly’s University City.

Even San Francisco, the startup mecca of the world has been able to revitalize the areas south of Mission into a thriving techtropolis that the likes of TechCrunch, AOL and Twitter have called home.

One of the big differences (other than it being home for this journalist) is the fact that hundreds, no wait thousands of people lost their lives in some of these streets. There were killings and overdoses and it was all memorialized for five years in the beginning of the millennium on national television. Now May along with a group of residents from Druid Heights, Marble Hill, and Reservoir Hill, who call themselves The Mount Royal Community Development Corporation are banding around new development. Like myself, most folks involved in the project are no more than one or two degrees of separation from that old life. Baltimore is a true town of hustlers, hardcore hustlers that can turn this past into an amazing future.

A lot of that new development will be right on the land that was once Reservoir Hill a 27 building housing project that was dubbed “Murder Mall”. It was controlled by Little Melvin’s crew in the 70s. In season 1, of the Wire Mcnulty says that Barksdale has an apartment in the Reservoir Hill area.

The redevelopment project was previously called Innovation Village. It’s now going by the name 1300 acres. May is the CEO of the nonprofit working to make this a reality.

The developer is P. David Bramble of MCB Real Estate. The project is a $100 million dollar mixed use development that is on pace to break ground in two years. After the rubble from Murder Mall is totally cleared. Once complete it will have 300-500 mixed income multi family units. It will feature retail space and restaurant space. The hook will be 50,000 square feet of hub for tech companies and entrepreneurs. A second phase could include an enormous fitness center.

Entrepreneurs in the Baltimore area are bursting at the seems. There’s great companies spinning out of companies like Under Armour. There are amazing startups coming out of Coppin State, Morgan State,  UMBC, John’s Hopkins and even nearby Towson State. One of the big problems that the younger entrepreneurs are having is finding housing post college.

Study after study has confirmed that Live Work Play works every single place it has been implemented. To turn this vision in West Baltimore into Innovation Village will shoot the already growing entrepreneurial community in Charm City thrive even more.

We’ll be tracking this story for years to come.