This was the place: How Baltimore gained — and lost — a beloved mural

Published 3/2/2023 5:30 a.m. EST, Updated 3/2/2023 11:41 a.m. EST

A mural in Baltimore that used to read "THIS MUST BE THE PLACE" was painted by Stephen Powers, known as ESPO. The new tenants of the building have painted over it.

For years, drivers on MD-295 in Baltimore could look east and see large block lettering that declared “THIS MUST BE THE PLACE.” It was like a warm welcome into the city.

But in December, a Reddit user noticed that part of the mural had been covered up with garish yellow paint. More recently, it’s been tagged with graffiti.

The mural — which read in full “HOME THIS MUST BE THE PLACE” — was painted by artist Stephen Powers, know as ESPO, as part of a series called “Love Letters to Baltimore.”

Powers said in an email he was contacted by the building’s owner in 2014 and asked to paint a message on the wall. He settled on giant, white block letters on a blue-gray background, with black and orange shadowing.

David Byrne of The Talking Heads, who graduated high school in Baltimore County and attended the Maryland Institute College of Art, became Powers’ muse. He drew inspiration from the band’s 1983 classic “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody).”

With Byrne’s blessing, Powers said he got to work and finished the mural in a day and a half.

And for almost 10 years, Powers’ mural signaled that Baltimore was the place.

It was part of a Love Letters to Baltimore mural series by Powers. When it was approved in 2014, then-City Council President Jack Young called the $27,500 project a “waste of taxpayer dollars.”

Powers spent time in communities talking with the people who lived there to help inspire his art, he said in a 2015 Bloomberg feature. And, though the project struggled to get financing from the city government at first, the “Love Letters to Baltimore” series was well received by the public.

One mural was called “really beautiful” by local residents, according to Baltimore magazine.

When Mayor Catherine Pugh tried to entice Amazon to build a headquarters in South Baltimore, she referenced the “THIS MUST BE THE PLACE” mural in letters and public appearances. And it received public acclaim for its prominent location welcoming drivers into the city.

But murals aren’t frozen in time and they don’t necessarily last forever.

Some of the “Love Letter” murals in the project were temporary by design, like a large message that said “FOREVER TOGETHER” on townhomes that have since been demolished in East Baltimore.

And Powers’ mural off I-295 was painted over by a new tenant.

In an email, Powers said it’s “part of the life cycle of painting outside.” He said he was grateful for the love he got from Baltimore, and hopes there’s an opportunity where he can “show love again in return.”

The building is now occupied by a warehouse for Legacy Wood Product, a kitchen and bathroom remodeling company.

A company representative said the mural was painted over after the business’s insurance company said it had to be removed. They did not respond to a request for additional information.

The fate of the beloved mural begs the question: Could anything have saved it?

The Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, or BOPA, ultimately considers murals “temporary in nature,” said Chris Brooks, assistant director for the Arts Council at BOPA.

“It is disappointing, I will say that,” Brooks said. “What’s unfortunate for BOPA, in our position, we’re not a permitting agency. We don’t have any power to enforce a property owner to conserve a mural.”

Although the agency can provide best practices for conserving murals, Brooks said, “We don’t have any power to tell them to not take down a mural, unfortunately.”

Maria Wolfe is a photographer and the creator of Baltimurals, an Instagram account that’s been around since 2015. She featured the “HOME” mural in August that year.

Wolfe has documented hundreds of murals across the city, and estimated there are at least 300 within city limits, though Brooks said in an email it’s tough to determine how many murals are still in place. Wolfe has also created a publicly accessible Google Map that shows the locations of murals in the city, too.

She was disappointed when she learned the mural that used to welcome people on I-295 into Baltimore was taken down.

“It was one of my favorite [murals], because of the location, because it was like the entrance and exit of the city,” Wolfe said. “I think it really draws you in, invites you, makes you feel comfortable.”

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