Sax and flute runs, jazz guitar chords and humming bass fill the back room of the Avenue Bakery on a Saturday afternoon in February. A jazz quartet led by James Dow is opening for a ceremonial unveiling of an exhibit about the 18 theaters that once helped fuel a buzzing scene in West Baltimore in the early and mid-20th century.
Before unveiling the placards, historic photos, mural-sized maps and various ads about the theaters — donated by photographer Amy Davis from her National Building Museum showcase “Flickering Treasures” — bakery owner James Hamlin addresses a small crowd.
“This is the most historic African-American community in the country,” says Hamlin, who’s spent years raising money to rebuild the iconic Royal Theatre, demolished in 1971. “We have the assets. We just don’t have the infrastructure, and that’s what we’re building on.”
Pennsylvania Avenue is Maryland’s first-ever black arts and entertainment district, approved last year by the Maryland Department of Commerce for the designation honoring its storied musical and civil rights legacy.
A&E districts, of which there are 28 in Maryland — soon to be 29, when Catonsville’s designation takes effect in July — and now four in Baltimore City, aim to boost foot traffic, economic growth and tourism by drawing on an area’s local culture and heritage. They enjoy economic perks such as property tax credits for land owners who develop property for arts uses, income tax breaks for merchant artists selling their products and tax abatements for event ticket sales.
A Maryland State Arts Council fiscal analysis released last year found the districts generated $72.1 million in tax impacts statewide in fiscal 2018 — $11.4 million combined just within the city’s Bromo Tower, Highlandtown and Station North districts.
Maryland State Arts Council Deputy Director Steven Skerritt-Davis says the credits are important perks, but “what’s been traditionally most valuable to any district is the marketing potential.”
Having the designation lets “individuals, artists, businesses know that the arts are thriving here and there’s a desire to bring artists here, which usually brings other businesses. People want to be where the thing is happening.”
Shifting the narrative
The generational disinvestment plaguing Pennsylvania Avenue in 2020 is “not for a lack of space, and it’s not for a lack of potential,” says Brion Gill, executive director of the newly launched Black Arts District. “It is as a result of people not valuing this space.”
It’s also not for a lack of foot traffic or neighborhood activity. Head down the designated 1.3-mile stretch from Fulton Avenue to Dolphin Street and you’ll find anchors like the Arch Social Club, the Avenue Market and the Upton Boxing Center. Neighbors talk and sit together outside and colorful murals honoring community figures dot the area. New affordable housing is underway at Pennsylvania Avenue and Baker Street. Subway riders trickle in and out of two Baltimore Metro stops — a rarity in this public transit-starved city. Assorted shops, carryouts and other small businesses have their doors open and lights on.
But the area sports the hallmarks of blight in Baltimore, too: abundant vacant homes and businesses, apparent drug trafficking, litter, the occasional red-and-blue glare of police lights. Poverty rates in each census tract south of North Avenue range from 36% to 58%, well above the citywide 22%, according to 2019 census data. Most residents in the area are renters, rather than homeowners, data show.
Among the Black Arts District’s goals is to bring artists, residents and various other stakeholders together to help with the “continuation of the revitalization of West Baltimore,” Gill said at the brand launch at the Shake and Bake Family Fun Center on Feb. 16.
The district now has a new multi-colored and geometric logo, a website and social media pages, and is kicking off with a host of programming, including:
Monthly First Saturdays starting in May with food, vendors, live music, DJs and open houses for nearby anchor institutions
An Ideas Summit sourcing input from locals for what they want to see in the area
Plans to hang banner poles branding streets as Black Arts District and Pennsylvania Avenue Main Street territory
A pilot program showcasing locally made art at open houses
A Buy Black campaign marketing black-owned city businesses; and
A mayoral forum focusing on the arts in March, among other efforts.
Long-term ideas include adding an arts incubator space, hosting an annual large-scale festival to draw more tourists, finding developer partners to build both short-term and permanent artist housing, and creating a fellowship to pay artists to put on community-based programming.
Gill said she visited Oakland’s Black Arts Movement Business District and looked to arts districts in Fort Worth, Texas, and New Orleans for inspiration while planning over the last year. Drawing on those examples, she said Baltimore’s Black Arts District wants to attract a new wave of investment from black residents who currently live or work in, but generally do not own properties along The Avenue.
“Part of our work is to shift the narrative and create a different value story about Pennsylvania Avenue,” Gill told the BBJ after the brand launch, “so that developers see this as a prime location to come and develop, and so that business owners, black folks, creatives, folks who have creative enterprises, see this as a viable corridor to open up spaces.”
‘Trying to find our way’
This territory was once a “microcosm of black America,” says Marion Blackwell, executive director of the nonprofit Pennsylvania Avenue Main Street. Dating back to the early 20th century, it had an educated, middle-class African-American base that included lawyers, doctors, civil rights and religious leaders — Baltimore’s own “Mecca for African-American culture,” Blackwell says, likening it to Harlem for New York or Shaw for Washington, D.C.
Most famous were the clubs and theaters that brought in national performers from the 1920s through the 1950s, from the Sphinx Club to the iconic Royal — part of the famed Chitlin’ Circuit that supported black performers during segregation — to Club Tijuana and Ike Dixon’s comedy club, among many others.
Hamlin, who owns The Avenue Bakery and grew up on its namesake road, recalls young people racing to finish their chores on weekends during the ‘50s and ‘60s to make the Royal’s 1 p.m. shows, and adults going out “dressed to the nines” in the evenings. Entertainers would walk the main drag before shows, shopping, talking with locals and getting their shoes shined, he says.
The business and cultural climate changed in the 1960s, after theaters and clubs desegregated and more black Baltimoreans branched out to visit downtown. The advent of television ate into the appeal of live entertainment. A swath of black businesses were destroyed and looted in the devastating riots following Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968. The city demolished numerous iconic buildings as part of a so-called “urban renewal” program in the early 1970s.
Drugs invaded amid that cultural vacuum, notes Blackwell, putting down roots for an illicit market that persists today. A deteriorated housing base and widespread unemployment compounded those issues. “The Wire,” HBO’s famed TV show about Baltimore’s sordid realities, “negatively rewrote some of what the reputation of this area was,” Blackwell says.
“We’re talking decades of trying to find our way,” she says. “Communities, even economically deprived communities, every community has got to have a sense of purpose and something that holds it together, the glue that holds it together.”
Council members Leon Pinkett and Eric Costello, who co-sponsored a resolution to designate the territory that is partially located in both of their districts, say the arts district can be one piece of the puzzle, providing that glue for its neighborhoods.
Van Anderson, president of the Arch Social Club, says a unified effort to host more live music and community programming, create jobs and to beautify The Avenue will be vital to its rebirth as a tourism district. His 115-year-old organization has already hosted live music for years, but has recently ramped up blues, jazz and R&B shows and plans to install a lighted marquee outside. It’s also planning to get a kitchen up and running in order to have a sit-down restaurant to draw visitors during the daytime.
“This is the only thing that’s gonna calm back the drug traffic and the negative culture out there, is for us to present and demonstrate a strong, positive African-American culture,” he says.
Pennsylvania Avenue Main Street is also putting on more programming, including at the historic Avenue Market — one of the city’s six public markets — where it’s based. Blackwell said the nonprofit plans to host business pop-ups at empty stalls to give entrepreneurs a chance to test out ideas, so that “as development occurs, they’re in a position to occupy these vacant buildings.”
Residentially, the arts district is a new draw for homeowners, says Anthony Pressley, executive director of the Druid Heights Community Development Corp.
“I find that the history of the community is a draw for new homeowners, new businesses,” Pressley said. He also said the rebranding “encourages our existing homeowners to remain actively involved as the community is being rehabilitated or revitalized.”
He, Blackwell and Costello all said they’ve seen more interest from developers and prospective business owners. Pinkett also said the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development is “at the beginning of exploring housing for artists” using city-owned property.
Pinkett noted the arts district is just one piece of the area’s revitalization, and “there was no expectation that just receiving state designation for the arts district would facilitate new development projects.” But, coupled with other planning work already underway for years, including efforts by Pennsylvania Avenue Main Street and master plans by Druid Heights CDC, Penn-North Community Association and the Upton Planning Committee, the arts district is “laying the groundwork for a significant revitalization.”
Baltimore City Planning Director Chris Ryer, who himself served as coordinator of the Highlandtown Arts District when he was director of the Southeast CDC, said he believes arts districts should be further explored as a catalyst for economic development, in the vein of what Pennsylvania Avenue is aiming for.
“There’s a lot of people running around, mostly younger people, making a living” as makers, artists, chefs and other creative professions, he said. “That could be a way to grow the city… There’s something about the dynamic of a city and the creative folks that we should be understanding better and supporting more. It feels like that’s coming together on Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Fending off gentrification
Gill points out that even though Pennsylvania Avenue was known as a haven for African-American arts and entertainment, “most of the institutions were not owned by black people.”
Case in point: The Royal Theatre — originally named The Douglass — was built by black bankers in 1922, but sold just four years later to white owners. Throughout its glory years it changed hands several more times, Davis, the photographer, wrote in her book “Flickering Treasures.” Despite being widely popular among black Baltimoreans, it remained white-owned leading up to its demolition.
“In order not to replicate that process,” says Gill, “we have to talk about how do we make sure that black people have greater autonomy and actually are owning their spaces.”
She said the nonprofit plans to coordinate with neighborhood community development corporations, the quasi-public Baltimore Development Corp. and the city’s planning and housing departments. Together, she said they can promote programs like the city’s Vacants to Value initiative to current black residents and entrepreneurs, helping them set up new businesses and assisting renters in transitioning to build equity.
Ryer noted that for the first time, the city has set aside money in its budget — $50,000 for each of Baltimore’s four arts districts, plus $15,000 apiece from the state — to help fund their operations. In the Black Arts District’s case, he said that should free up organizers to focus their efforts on programming, promoting creation of equity among existing residents and merchants and more. “I’m feeling very hopeful,” he said.
Anderson, of the Arch Social Club, said he has heard about the gentrification that has taken hold of aforementioned black economic and cultural strongholds in New York and Washington, D.C.
“We want to make a stand and fight that thing off,” he said. “We know business is business and other folks may want to come and buy property and invest, but we have an interest ourself in developing the commercial corridor, and for it to be African-American-owned.”
If artists and merchants from the neighborhood can gain ownership of these blocks while also generating a more positive public perception of the area, it can become a citywide tourism asset, Gill said.
Anderson is determined to help with the transformation. “We want people to know that this is the culture we intend to express. We want to claim this part of town.”