Music venues can and should engage the public realm
Music clubs can help revitalize neighborhoods, but too often, they do little to nothing to activate or engage street life, and instead wall themselves off from the activity around them.
The Fillmore Silver Spring opened last month, and local music venues are voicing concern that the Live Nation-owned music hall could threaten promoters in the District and even Baltimore. Already, the venue has beaten most local rock clubs on one aspect: it actually embraces the street, with big windows, bright lights, and even a couple of sidewalk benches.
Music halls don't necessarily need windows. They have shows at night and audiences come to watch the band, not the street. But these venues still are still part of their community fabric during the day, when the neighborhoods they reside in play host to other activities.
Having blank, featureless façades discourage street life and can send the wrong message. Last year, the Black Cat, which anchors the shopping and entertainment district along 14th Street NW, painted a mural of a cat on their boarded-up second-floor windows.
Nonetheless, it doesn't look much different from the outside than it did as an abandoned shell in 1988. Clubs like the Black Cat and the 9:30 Club a few blocks away have helped revitalize their neighborhoods, but by looking like abandoned bunkers, their aesthetics can perpetuate a run-down image.
Venues outside of the District are no better. While in Baltimore last weekend, I took my friends to The Ottobar, a tiny club in the emerging Station North neighborhood. Judging from its completely blacked-out storefront, they thought it was abandoned. I can imagine someone walking up North Howard Street, assuming there's nothing there, and turning around, missing out on a wonderful coffee shop just a block away.
In Alexandria, the venerable Birchmere Music Hall is largely invisible from the street, despite being in a fairly dense, urban neighborhood. If it weren't for the murals on the side, this club would just look like a warehouse behind a parking lot.
One exception would be the Recher Theatre, located in the center of downtown Towson. I drove through Towson last weekend and was impressed at how busy the downtown is, despite being home to one of Maryland's largest shopping malls. With a big marquee left over from the theatre's days as a movie palace and an adjacent bar that's open every day, the Recher keeps the streets active in a way that other area clubs don't.
Of course, rock clubs thrive on an aura of obscurity, while windows suggest openness and transparency. But perhaps venues can create window displays that affirm their image while creating a more interesting streetscape. For example, the Trocadero, a rock club in Philadelphia, has engaging, albeit suggestive, Barbie Doll dioramas in their windows.
Great streets require the participation of all the buildings that front them, even rock clubs. By creating storefronts that are visually interesting, or by providing uses like cafes or bars that are visibly open when shows aren't going on, clubs can create safer, more vibrant neighborhoods.
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