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A Love Letter to The Crown

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In June, I announced an open call for selfies taken at The Crown, a favorite bar/venue in Station North. As soon as you see a Crown selfie on your IG feed, you can tell where the photo was taken. And if you’ve been to The Crown, you’ve probably taken one too. I’ve taken a bunch that I’ve sadly lost on an older iPhone. I appreciate those who submitted photos—it was nice to gaze into the space I love so much in the background.

When the selfies first started coming in, I was feeling a lot of joy and hope as my sense of doom and loss was dissolving. Earlier this week, however, I saw a map of the United States depicting the number of COVID cases in July, next to a map showing the current cases as of August 10. Across the graphic, a mass of red bled, signaling the spread of the delta variant. I have roots in Arkansas, and yesterday I saw a headline that said that in the entire state of Arkansas, the number of available hospital ICU beds has been reduced to eight. I’m sure when you read this, these statistics will be even dimmer. 

Since March 2020, I have mourned the loss of live shows and entertainment in Baltimore. I used to attend shows at The Crown, Ottobar, and Rituals all the time. We had so much hope a few months ago with more vaccines becoming available. And again, when I set out to write this, I intended it to be an exciting “welcome back” to The Crown, an homage to our old lives that were filled with drinks, kimchi fries, flirting, dancing, karaoke, and being able to once again share space safely with people we had been separated from for months. 

Last week, Baltimore City reinstated the indoor mask mandate, and since then I’ve seen a number of events that I was looking forward to canceled due to safety concerns. I am unsure, as all of us are unsure, about what the future holds for concertgoers and bar patrons, but the more critical question is what does the future hold for those venues, bars, and clubs that facilitate the communion of music and crowd?

Before the pandemic-related closures, The Crown was nearly always available to stumble into, either upstairs in the blue or red room, or downstairs in the Back Bar. In these spaces, you could find Qué Pequeño’s 808s & Sadbois series, a monthly showcase for rappers, DJs and vendors. Or you could find the always-packed Version, a dance party for queer people hosted every second Saturday by Trillnatured and Kotic Couture. You could also find poetry readings, karaoke, punk shows, and so more. I used to love dancing at one show in one room and then going across the hall to the less crowded other room, even just for some AC and a change of pace—or to stand in a shorter drink line. 

I miss being afraid I was going to fall down the stairs due to my clumsiness and drunkenness. I miss remembering that there was an actual literal crown encased in glass on your way upstairs. I miss Tony standing guard and asking me for my ID even when I’d seen him the day before for a different show. I miss watching Tony not let in people who tried it and didn’t have IDs. I miss hearing house, techno, Baltimore club, and rap blasting from the sound systems. I miss ordering fries downstairs, bringing the buzzer upstairs, talking to my friends over loud-as-hell music until it buzzed, then running downstairs to eat before I missed anything back upstairs. I miss being so anxious about karaoke but my friends forcing me to sing with them. I miss getting up the courage to talk to people I had crushes on. I miss how the vodka sodas tasted unlike any other vodka soda I’ve ever had but were cheap and got the job done. I miss waiting in line for the bathroom upstairs, then trying to go to the Back Bar bathroom downstairs and realizing it was locked. I miss telling other drunk people I like their outfits. I miss the joy I felt, how safe I felt, and how much laughter I experienced in The Crown. 

 

The Crown first opened in the summer of 2013 and has changed in structure over the years. It has always been a music venue, and it began exhibiting artwork in the downstairs Back Bar a few years after opening. The Back Bar, attached to the Crown’s restaurant and kitchen, was where I used to attend movie nights alone when I first moved here, where you could play pool or get a drink. Since The Crown’s summertime reopening, only the downstairs Back Bar has been open to guests. DJs have been throwing shows, and I’ve attended one or two, and I went to karaoke once. Going to these events in that space allowed me to feel the most like my pre-quarantine self than I have in months. 

Let’s support The Crown by safely patronizing, wearing masks, and ordering food to go. To many, The Crown is a bastion of Baltimore nightlife. There is no other venue quite like it. It offers a space for anyone to get their start, and on Tuesdays and Saturdays, anyone can be a star on the Back Bar karaoke stage. In addition to crowdsourcing selfies from visitors of The Crown, I reached out to exhibition coordinator Sarah Dunn and venue manager Michael “Mikey” Young to check in and see what’s happening in Crowntown these days and their hopes for the future. 

 

Miki/Mikey, Crown manager, visual artist, performance artist, musician

How would you describe The Crown for someone who has never been?

The Crown, in the Hyundai Plaza building, has deep roots in the area of Station North historically. Sitting on the border between Penn Station and Baltimore’s Koreatown, there is so much diversity. It is like telling a story of the past and you can see it very clearly. What happens outside of The Crown is just as important as what goes on inside. We are sweating outside and inside, dancing outside and inside, meeting different people from all over, communicating and enjoying the moment as ourselves.

What has the reopening process been like for the Crown? 

It sort of happened abruptly and within a short time period. We had lost so many staff from the original team due to the pandemic. Only about six or seven staff members have returned, like most businesses in the service industry. The two owners and I had to work on getting everything ready to reopen by ourselves physically. Luckily, we reopened for a brief period last summer/fall 2020 to cut down some of the leg work this time, but we are very tired from [doing] this process two times. The hiring process was very well-received and so many applied. We have a great staff at the moment and we couldn’t be more proud of everyone and the patience we have received from them. It is all very exciting and inspiring.

What are some concerts/shows that are upcoming?

We have several regular dance parties, as well as one-off parties, a few shows with live music, comedy, burlesque, and weekly karaoke!

What are The Crown’s goals for the next few months? 

We are in the process of several changes, with renovations taking place upstairs and the expansion of an outside area behind the Ynot lot stage for additional Crown seating and programming. Station North has been a key supporter of Crowntown throughout the pandemic, so expect more collaborations with Ynot Lot/Station North in the future!

How long have you been at The Crown?

I have been at The Crown since the early stages of development and birth in 2013.

When did The Crown begin having music shows?

The Crown had music events at the very beginning when Brendan Sullivan was in the management role, summer 2013.

What is the plan for upstairs?

It is kinda secret still but we are remodeling. You can still expect the old Crown feeling, of course, and some of our best parties will be returning!

How often are the bathrooms repainted?

Haha, well, due to the pandemic not so often! But previously maybe every year we would refresh with a new canvas!

 

Sarah Dunn, exhibition coordinator of Back Bar Gallery

Can you tell in your own words your curatorial vision for the space?

Since I started getting involved with the art exhibitions at The Crown, I haven’t thought of my role as curating so much as offering organizational support. The Crown is very much a place for everyone, and it creates this sense of community through the creatives it attracts and collaborates with both for performances and exhibitions. After I started working there as a bartender, and as an artist myself, I wanted to be involved in the creative side of things, so I started asking Michael Young about how they worked with exhibiting artists, and he started including me in that process until I eventually took over the bulk of the exhibition organizing work.  

In this way, it’s not so much that I have my own vision for the space. I just want people to come in with their own concepts and work, and I want to make sure they have the support and access to the space to make their vision happen. 

How long have you been curating shows?

The first show I helped organize was in the fall of 2019, and since we didn’t really exhibit in 2020, I guess I’ve only been doing this for about a year. When we briefly reopened in the fall of 2020, I was mostly working to reschedule all the artists whose work we hadn’t been able to show due to the pandemic. 

What is the process for someone who wants to propose an exhibition? 

All someone needs to do is to email me at thecrownbackbargallery@gmail.com. Just send a brief description about the work, and if they want to include any kind of performance or event element, along with a link to a portfolio, website, or Instagram account (attaching images is fine too), and I’ll get back to them. 

Do you think you’d ever exhibit work in other parts of the venue?

Right now, our focus is just on the Back Bar, but who knows. I’d be open to exhibiting in other areas of the space if the opportunity presented itself. 

What are the next few exhibitions happening at The Crown gallery?

From August 13 to September 11, we will be exhibiting recent works by Brandon Buckson and Scout Roll. Brandon’s work addresses emotions surfacing from isolation, as well as the financial realities and everyday stresses instigated by the health crisis. Scout’s pieces include painting and mixed-media work responding to a loss from a Fentanyl overdose, exploring representations of Fentanyl itself, as well as the loved one lost. 

And from September 17 to October 15th, we will be showing work by Laila Milevski and Gabriella Santiago-Vancak who are both graduates from MICA’s Illustration Practice MFA. 

All three of these exhibitions will be on view during Station North’s upcoming art walks

What is your vision for the Back Bar gallery moving forward and post-pandemic?

I think my vision or hope for the gallery is that it continues to attract creatives and encourages lasting collaborations and community-building among Baltimore artists. It’s a place for experimentation, and I want people to have that freedom to experiment and play with how they engage with the space. This feels especially important post-pandemic, since I think there is a collective realization of and need for both building community and nurturing creativity.  

 

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