How a Forgotten Bit of Infrastructure Became a Symbol of Civic Pride

In the last few weeks of 2020, as another coronavirus surge was putting a stop to parties, shuttering businesses, and rendering work and school and most of social life remote, the artist Juliet Ames spied a salt box at West Thirty-sixth Street and Roland Avenue, in Baltimore, situated between Café Hon and Holy Frijoles, near a restaurant called Frazier’s on the Avenue. Salt boxes are, or have become, a Baltimore specialty. Nine hundred or so of these bespoke wooden bins—about as wide as a refrigerator, as tall as a toddler, as yellow as a rubber ducky—are stationed strategically throughout the city, mostly on streets too narrow or hills too steep for plows. For decades, they were an unremarkable part of Baltimore’s remarkable winter-weather program, which, on any given snow day, might see some three hundred personnel mobilized during each shift. Although Baltimore averages only twenty inches of snow a year—about sixty inches less than Anchorage and a hundred less than Syracuse—the city still goes through nearly twenty thousand tons of salt every winter season, a small portion of which is distributed via the boxes, which have hinged lids for easy access, but no shovels or scoops. They are self-serve, though there’s some confusion about this: until a few years ago, most of the attention the boxes attracted in a given season amounted to a collective head scratch about what exactly they were for and who was actually allowed to use them. “Salt boxes,” a typical community message-board post read. “What gives?”

Ames grew up in the Lake Walker neighborhood and lives there now with her son. She makes art from unlikely materials, mostly jewelry from broken china. She had always loved the salt boxes—even as a kid, she was delighted by their arrival because it meant snow season was coming and, with it, snow days—but she found herself particularly obsessing over the one on the corner, bothered by the absence of the usual spray-paint label, “SALT BOX.” Either it never had the letters, or they had faded because, that year, the city had failed to collect the boxes in the spring. In the past, the boxes would appear every fall and disappear every spring, usually on Tax Day, or what salt-box enthusiasts call Ascension Day. But, with the Department of Transportation low on funds and short on staff, the retrieval of boxes had become one of the many things cancelled by the pandemic.

“I’m not a rule-breaker, really,” Ames told me. “I was really nervous about doing anything, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that salt box.” As vandalism and public disturbances go, what she decided to do ranks somewhere between a sidewalk chalking and a flash mob: she cut seven letters out of china, each of them a few inches tall, a few inches wide, and patterned with floral or toile, and affixed all seven of them to a yellow plywood panel, which she knew she could install quickly on the street. Then she tweeted a grimacing emoji above a photograph of her handiwork, along with a hashtag that would soon take off: #baltimoresaltbox.

After that first one, Ames decorated a handful of others, and, within a few weeks, plenty of other artists had followed her lead, decorating dozens of boxes with images of everything from Pantone color swatches and seventeen-year cicadas to Morton salt girls and an entire salt mine’s worth of city-specific celebrities, references, randomness, and jokes. The Ravens and the Orioles showed up, of course, but so did the labels of Old Bay, Rapa Scrapple, National Bohemian beer, and Utz potato chips. Characters from “The Wire” started appearing on boxes, as did Edgar Allan Poe, who died in the city, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who lived there for a while. The local novelist Laura Lippman’s character Tess Monaghan inspired one; the Baltimore Rock Opera Society decorated their own. Mayor Brandon Scott saw his exchange with a heckler go from remix to salt box in record time when the “Shorty, pull ya mask up!” box premièred. Eventually, even Ames herself served as an inspiration: one artist painted a salt box with a picture of her standing beside a salt box.

The magazine Baltimore Style ran a story on the art-box movement, and it wasn’t long before it was covered by other magazines, local television networks, and the city’s public-radio station. Baltimoreans started taking walking tours to see the boxes and following scavenger hunts to find newly decorated ones. “Baltimore salt boxes went from being the most ignored city property to Banksy-bait in one single good idea,” the filmmaker and city native John Waters wrote to me in an e-mail. Decades ago, Waters featured one of the boxes in his film “Roman Candles,” but now the salt boxes feature him: one artist painted a portrait of the Pope of Trash, and another a famous collaborator of his, the drag queen Divine. “I love that my imagery made the leap above ground, and helped people to skid back into art instead of a car accident,” Waters wrote. The scrappy salt box has become an unlikely icon, and an object lesson in the puzzling origins and even more puzzling manifestations of civic pride.

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Finding a salt box was always a little difficult. The city does not provide the public with a map of them, and, since they are not installed, only placed, they sometimes moved down a block or disappeared entirely, appropriated by residents to use as toy boxes or storage bins. A brief experiment by the Department of Transportation with higher-end plastic boxes, similar to ones used in Scotland, was abandoned because of how many more were stolen. To the extent that the city’s salt boxes could be reliably located, it was thanks to an Instagram account called @baltimore.saltbox, which, over the past few years, has been documenting them one at a time, and gradually building up a geotagged map of all those it featured.

The owner of that account, Robert Atkinson, is originally from Michigan, and thus not unfamiliar with winter weather, but he had never seen a salt box before moving to the city more than a decade ago. The first one he saw was right outside his house, in Hampden. Then he began seeing them everywhere—and snapping pictures. “I really started to notice the different stencilling and the different colors from weathering,” he said. The boxes weathered the way barns do in Pennsylvania Dutch Country or covered bridges do in New England, and Atkinson found himself wanting to know more about them. He began by asking friends, who didn’t seem to know anything about the salt boxes. “Everyone was like, ‘I think they show up in the fall,’ or, ‘Sometimes they have salt, sometimes not, sometimes there’s just trash.’ ” Then he contacted the D.O.T., but wasn’t satisfied with the response. “I think they thought I was suspicious. Like, ‘Why would anyone want to know about the salt boxes?’ ”

In newspaper archives, Atkinson found records from the fifties of the city providing what were then called sandboxes for residents to use when there was snow or ice. He also found a bit of a following on Instagram, a few hundred people who liked to learn where individual boxes could be found. When he heard from Ames—she wrote to him before cutting out her letters, asking for the appropriate specs so that they would fit on the front—he knew he’d encountered a kindred spirit.

“I always thought these things were iconic and wanted to raise their profile,” Atkinson said, “but the pandemic made it really happen because people want to do something outside their house.” At a time when more far-flung travel was difficult, the boxes provided an excuse for venturing out within the city, exploring other neighborhoods and learning about local history and lore—making a vacation out of everyday life, a destination out of common places.

To celebrate the one-hundredth decorated box, Atkinson made a meta-box of boxes, featuring images of his favorites. He also made a calendar and, just this month, released the first issue of a zine he’s calling Saltbox Concern: The Journal of the Baltimore Saltbox, both of which are sold at Atomic Books, one of the city’s independent bookstores, with proceeds from the calendar donated to Moveable Feast, a local nonprofit, founded to deliver meals to people living with H.I.V./AIDS, that now serves some half a million meals a year to people living with chronic and life-threatening illnesses.

At heart, though, Atkinson remains a purist. “I still really like the normie boxes,” he told me. “A classic, normal salt box with some character from the bus going by and splashing it, looking all funky and weird, that’s what I like.” Still, he marked the decorated boxes on his geotagged map, and started adding QR codes to some so that people could learn about them. Because people had told him, “This is all great, but my box is empty,” he also added a second QR code that provided information about city services, such as how to request a salt box or a refill. Ames told me she felt like she and Atkinson had become “D.O.T. ambassadors at this point.” A public-art project had turned into a campaign to make the public more aware of the city’s infrastructure, saline and otherwise.

While salt is good for melting ice and snow—it disrupts the bonds of water molecules, lowering their freezing point so that wintry mix can’t stay mixed—it’s terrible for most other substances, able to de-paint and de-wood and de-whatever else it touches. Other than ice sculptures in Hell or sandcastles in high tide, it’s hard to imagine a worse situation for making art, or frankly for making anything.

The D.O.T.’s five-man carpentry crew—the men who make the salt boxes—know this better than anyone. Diallo Denton, who has worked for the city for twenty-seven years, supervises the crew, which is based in a shop in the Bayview neighborhood. He and his men are responsible for all the city’s footbridges, benches, picnic tables, stages, steps, piers, even the sheds in which many of the things they make are stored off-season. “Anything wood that’s built comes through here,” Denton said. But he knows they are best known now for their salt boxes, a fact that surprises them.

“I don’t even remember them growing up,” Vince Minoglio said. He’s been with the city the longest, since 1977, when he was eighteen years old and a friend of his father’s helped him get a job with maintenance. “You’re talking to the Baltimore Historical Society here,” Charles Peterson, Minoglio’s crewmate, joked. Peterson goes by Pete—he’s the most gregarious of the group—and despite their sibling-like ribbing they are proud of one another’s work: Peterson insisted I see the shed out back that their crewmate Godfrey Brown had designed. “He’s the one who puts a lot of our stuff together, figures it out,” he said, praising Brown’s engineering mind. “We put our heads together, that’s how we get things done.”

“When I came in,” Peterson went on, “we were using one and a quarter sheets of plywood to make one salt box. We were wasting a lot of material. A lot. So, over the years, we said, ‘Well, you know, let’s make it with less.’ ” He pointed to a pile of old street-closure signs, some of them broken and busted, some still whole. “We don’t throw nothing away—we just cut these up, these two-by-fours, make them into the braces.” Peterson delights in explaining how they save four screws on every box by installing only six in the eight-hole hinges they use on each side for the lids. There’s a beauty in this thrift, reminiscent of centuries of practical design constrained by resource scarcity. But it also hints at the ingenuity required of a municipal workforce that lacks adequate funds for essential services. “When you find any kind of somebody that constructs anything, I don’t care what it is, they all look at what they built and think, I could do it better, because that’s what an artist does,” Peterson said.

He and the rest of the crew are just five of hundreds of employees of the D.O.T., which has responsibilities more myriad than even some of those employees realize, and a mandate broader than most residents know: two thousand miles of roadways, almost three hundred bridges and culverts, nearly four thousand miles of sidewalks and curbing and gutters, seventy-two thousand street lights, and a quarter of a million signs. A resident might be glad for someone from the D.O.T.’s engineering division to design a fix for an intersection in their neighborhood, but annoyed when someone from the traffic division comes to enforce red-light restrictions, and outraged when someone from the towing division gets involved in a parking violation.

And these are just the employees in one department of the sprawling municipal government of the six-hundred-thousand-person city. Almost twelve thousand people work in the twenty-nine agencies and departments of the City of Baltimore, running the prisons and cleaning the sewers, issuing marriage licenses and parking passes and building permits, moving the grass and policing the streets, hauling off the trash and teaching schoolchildren, taking care of rabid raccoons and stray dogs, supplying drinking water and getting rid of wastewater, planting trees and pruning them. Rarely are these civil servants the subject of celebration; much more often they are subject to complaints about things that are broken or missing or that don’t work the way they should. Amid that chorus, the new fan club for the salt boxes has generated some welcome applause. “It’s like this,” Peterson said. “I take pride in my city. And anything I can do—build something out there that people can see—I feel as though I’ve done my job.”

Pride can be contagious. Peterson could make anyone take a second look at a city bench, and in Baltimore many of those benches are stencilled with former Mayor Martin O’Malley’s catchphrase “Greatest City in America.” More than a century ago, long before the salt boxes, a Czech grocer named William Oktavec painted the screens of his shop windows in the city’s Little Bohemia district, carefully decorating each window with something he sold, hoping to entice customers inside. A neighbor of his admired the paintings, and asked if he would paint the screens of her row house, too. Oktavec would go on to paint thousands of window screens, even opening an art shop where he sold them and taught classes on screen painting. Tens of thousands of row houses in Baltimore eventually featured painted screens, a form of folk art entirely specific to the city.

Who can say why some things become a thing? A Wordle-themed salt box being shared across the Internet makes a certain amount of sense, as does a Toynbee Tile salt box, since a lot of people know Stanley Kubrick’s filmography. But does anyone outside of Charm City remember that Vanessa Huxtable runs away to Baltimore on “The Cosby Show,” and could they summon that episode if they saw actress Tempestt Bledsoe’s face on a salt box that says “Big Fun in Baltimore”? Likewise, not even every Baltimorean can identify the handsome mustachioed man on a salt box in Woodberry, even with the hint that he goes by the Sunshine Kid—though local meteorologist Bob Turk has been delivering the weather on WJZ-TV 13 since 1973. There are endless iterations of local history and regional knowledge, and plenty of the salt-box enthusiasts are in it for what they don’t know about their city as much as what they already do.

Some of what they learned was sobering. When Liz Miller, a fine artist and art teacher, got a copy of Atkinson’s salt-box map last year, she noticed right away that certain neighborhoods were more decorated than others. “You could just see the white ‘L’ and Black butterfly,” she told me, invoking a study of racial segregation by the scholar Lawrence T. Brown, which characterized Baltimore as two distinct cities, one made from affluent white neighborhoods that takes the shape of the letter “L”, with structurally disadvantaged, historically Black neighborhoods surrounding it in the shape of a butterfly’s wings.

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