Where Saltboxes Go

Starting around April 15th of each year – Tax Day – the iconic yellow Baltimore saltboxes slowly start disappearing from street corners and sidewalks, leaving only a patch of dead grass or discolored square on the concrete. Mind you, not all of them leave us, but chances are, you’ll start noticing a little less OSHA yellow in your life as winter gives way to spring. That is unless you happen to find yourself on the 6400 block of Pulaski Highway at the Baltimore Department of Transportation Maintenance Division – the summer home of the Baltimore Saltbox.

The process goes like this: Maintenance crew supervisors oversee one or several of the four DOT districts. When saltboxes need to be removed, the supervisor provides a crew with a list of box addresses by intersection or cross-street in a district to be removed. This may be part of the seasonal cycle of pulling the boxes or it may be due to a buildup of requests through 311 or complaints to a city councilperson. Saltboxes suffer any number of abuses and misuses – car accidents, vandalism, and above all else, being used as a trashcan or storage. Time and the elements also take their toll. 

2020 was particularly bad for the saltboxes as COVID-19 restrictions and staffing shortages.The same workers that mow the parks and do landscaping pick up the boxes, so the saltboxes stayed baking in the sun while the skeleton crews did their best to keep Baltimore public spaces looking good. The mixture of salt and sand solidified in many boxes, leaving small boulders lodged inside that need to be removed. 

Finding the saltboxes on a list for pickup isn’t always easy. Like any other piece of moveable public property, the boxes disappear or migrate to other locations. One supervisor told me about a woman who claimed one as her own, chaining it to her fence and installing a padlock. Once a saltbox is found, it’s emptied. Trash removed and bagged up. Leftover salt is dumped out and shoveled into the truck to make the box lift lighter, if possible. It’s a two-person job, the classic lift-with-your-legs activity. 

The collected boxes are returned to 6400 Pulaski Highway and fall into three categories that roughly translate to:

  • Total loss: this is no longer a functioning box and will be crossing the Rainbow Bridge
  • Needs repair: this box has good bones, but need some maintenance team attention
  • Ready for storage: this box lives to serve another season and can go into storage

Saltbox storage is a little like the end of the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, if the government warehouse space was divided among a mid-sized, rectangle building and several shipping containers and trailers. Maximizing use to the space is key here, and since nobody needs to access a particular box, they’re all placed on their sides and stacked in rows to the ceiling, feet facing out. The math works like this in the storage building: Length: 15 boxes. Height: 4 boxes, Width: 10 boxes. Equals: 600 saltboxes in the main storage building and rest in shipping containers, which includes the retrieved boxes, newly built boxes to replace the ones lost throughout the year. 

Around November 15th, the boxes end their slumber and return to the streets of Baltimore to serve another year.

The Salt Is a Lie Box

Artist: Robert Atkinson

Neighborhood: Mount Washington

Location: Bonnie View Dr. & Western Run Dr.

Year: 2021

Status: Active

Background

This box is a play-off of the phrase “The cake is a lie” that repeatedly appears as graffiti in the popular video game Portal. In the game, the protagonist Chell is repeatedly (and falsely) promised a reward of cake by GLaDOS, the evil A.I. controlling the Apreture Science Laboratories facility where the game takes place.

​ “The salt is a lie” is also a joking reference to the fact that saltboxes are often empty when needed. ​

The Saltbox Has Its Moment

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Saltbox on E. Fort Ave. & Webster St., Riverside
Saltbox on E. Fort Ave. & Webster St., Riverside

I grew up where snow came in two categories: real and lake effect. Don’t ask me to tell you the difference because I can’t. Maybe the flakes produced by the moisture coming off Lake Michigan are different than in your garden variety Alberta Clipper, but snow is snow, and we had a lot of it in southwest lower Michigan. Snow management is a way of life, a survival skill, and a point of pride in a place where the micro-climate may drop six inches on your house at any given moment for five months of the year.

I moved to Baltimore from the Midwest a dozen years ago with strong ideas about snow and what to do with it. Don’t get me started on dibs for shoveled out street parking spots or folks who leave piles of snow on their cars that fly off on the poor unfortunates stuck driving behind them. They’re closing schools because of how much snow? Really?

Which brings us to the Baltimore Saltbox.

For years, I don’t remember paying them any particular attention. We had one – I don’t even remember the style – directly across from our rowhouse in Hampden for years. Then, one day, I noticed it was gone, leaving only a square patch of dead grass. The saltbox never came back. Did we not use it enough? We have a parking pad in the back and bought pet-safe ice melt to protect our dog’s paws, so maybe someone needed our box elsewhere. Who figured that out?

Questions percolated. Why did some boxes stay all year while other ones were taken away? Why all of the different font styles? Shouldn’t they come with a little shovel instead of the improvised Royal Farms plastic cups people seem to use? Who designed these things, and when were they first used in Baltimore? Are they for use on the road or the sidewalk, or both?

A switch had gotten flipped, and I started noticing – really noticing – the saltboxes. Each is different depending on placement and exposure to weather. Each represents a battle between a corrosive (salt) and materials (wood, paint, and nails) that corrode. That tension gives each saltbox its terroir. I was smitten.

In 2017, I started taking pictures of saltboxes during dog walks around Hampden and posting them on my personal Instagram. I’m as good a photographer as an iPhone makes me. The OHSA yellow and its fading variations do what they’re supposed to and stand out, making for interesting contrasts.

In 2018, I rolled the saltboxes into their own Instagram account – @baltimore.saltbox – and at the urging of a few friends (Bob Wagner and Teresa Duggan), I started dropping the boxes into a Google map Bob had set up.  Bob pulled together a saltbox walking tour map of Hampden, and we spent a lovely afternoon testing it out. IG followers reached out with stories, lore, and the same questions I had. To me, like the Utz girl and Natty Boh Gent, the yellow boxes with black block letters are iconic Baltimore symbols and deserved to have their story told and the lore collected. I visited the Pratt and exchanged emails with representatives of the city, who seemed confused by my interest.

Enter Juliet Ames. If you’re reading this, it’s probably because in January 2021, Juliet Ames took a break from creating amazing jewelry from broken plates to cut the letters SALT BOX out of china, mound them on a board, and affix it all to a saltbox at the corner of W. 36th St. and Roland Ave. Baltimore social media fell madly in love, and more importantly, Baltimore DOT chimed in with its blessing. I opened up my Google saltbox map to the public and deputized a few dozen people to do updates, adding normal and art boxes.

Saltbox Art piece #1 by Juliet Ames, corner of W. 36th St. & Roland Ave., Hampden
Saltbox Art piece #1 by Juliet Ames, corner of W. 36th St. & Roland Ave., Hampden

The media attention around the saltboxes opened a solid line of communication with DOT, who had their plates more than full with COVID-19 restrictions and the everyday stresses and issues of a typical government agency. They hadn’t asked for the extra attention, discussions, and meetings around, of all things, the saltboxes – a sub-set of a sub-set of DOT’s remit – and the DIY art that the citizenry suddenly decided to attach to them. My interpretation of DOT’s policy on handling the art boxes, which all accounts took multiple meetings to hash out, is documented here. The implementation of this policy is a topic for another time.

Saltbox art themes include visual puns (the “Shoe Box” replaces the word with a shoe drawing) and mashups with iconic local brands (the “Old Bay Box” looks like a can of the spice that locals put on everything from popcorn to crabs). The “Salt Waters” and “Divine” boxes feature the Pope of Trash himself, John Waters, and his muse Divine, respectively. Saltbox art also memorizes local historical figures like jazz greats Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway, and writer Edgar Allen Poe. 

Over 200 pieces of incredible saltbox art produced by 65+ artists later, I still had the same basic saltbox questions. Luckily, I had an in with DOT now, and they let a few of us see where the boxes go in the summer and who makes them. More on this to follow.

The DOT Plans for the Saltboxes

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First of all, thank you to everyone who participated in this amazing DIY art project. As of April 3, 2021, there are 198 art boxes throughout Baltimore City created by 65 different artists. 

We have been in discussions with Baltimore City’s Department of Transportation (DOT) about what comes next. More details below but you will have two options:

  1. “Adopt” your box. That is, keep your art in place and take responsibility for maintaining the box. 
  2. Remove your art before mid-April (reverting the art box to a regular saltbox status). The city will begin picking up regular, non-art, saltboxes around April 15th. 

Background

First, a bit of background on the city’s normal approach to managing the saltboxes. 

Around November 15th, DOT begins placing saltboxes at key intersections and hilly streets identified as needing to have salt available. DOT then starts picking up the saltboxes around April 15th to repair them and build new boxes in preparation for the next winter season. 

Our little art project has changed the process, and we give full props to DOT Director Steve Sharkey for recognizing that they had something special happening and letting it flourish. 

So this is what is going to happen according to DOT:

Adopt Your Box: Art Boxes Are Staying Put (If You Choose)

In mid-April, DOT will be picking up all non-art boxes as per the normal process. These will be taken, stored, repaired, and prepped for duty in the fall.

Art boxes will remain. This is where you come in. DOT would like the artists to “adopt” the boxes they’ve decorated since they won’t be getting the normal repairs. What this means is a little hazy but will include removing trash from your box, making sure your art improves the box’s appearance and doing your best to keep the box intact. 

If your box requires a level of repair that you can’t do yourself, call 311 to report that a repair is needed. The box and its art will be taken by DOT, repaired, and returned, with your art in place. As this is a city service, this should be used as a final resort. Unless the wood itself has rotted away or pieces have gone missing, do your best to keep the structure intact. 

Remove Your Art: Revert an Art Box to a Plain Old Saltbox

If you do not want to adopt your box, you can always simply deinstall your box and return it to its normal state. This would allow DOT to take the saltbox back to be repaired and relieve you of the duty of maintaining a box. With boxes returning in the fall, you can always relive the magic of decorating a saltbox again.

If you do pull your art, let us know at baltimore.saltbox@gmail.

Art Box (and Normal Saltbox) Mapping Taken Over By DOT

Currently, we’ve been keeping a Google Map of each of the known art box locations with cross streets, date, title, artist, neighborhood, reporter, and photo. It also maps normal box locations throughout the past few years. DOT does not have a map of saltboxes but tracks their locations with a spreadsheet. 

Going forward, DOT will be using its GIS software to map the locations of BOTH art boxes and regular saltboxes. This will be a great public service and available to everyone like other city service maps. Examples can be found here.

This software is very robust and will allow for map features and details that Google Maps cannot support. We will be working with DOT and their GIS team on what information should be captured for the art boxes to ensure the work is properly documented and attributed, and any additional contextual information to help with the understanding of cultural significance. The GIS software will open up great possibilities like easily making walking tour maps and including QR codes on boxes, to name a few things we’re thinking about.

Once the data points for the map entries are defined, we will probably be reaching out to individual artists for help in filling in details. 

We know you probably have questions or ideas. Please reach out to both baltimore.saltbox@gmail.com and juilet@ibreakplates.com. And follow @baltimore.saltbox and @thebrokenplate_jules on IG for all things Baltimore Saltbox.

Thank you for making this all possible and bringing the magic!

Cheers,

Juliet Ames & Robert Atkinson