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Charmed Life

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Frank Klein

By Waris Banks | Posted 2/11/2004

On Saturday nights, the scene inside the Arch Social Club seems less like a nightclub and more like a family party. The atmosphere is not unlike that of a wedding reception where everyone wants to dance: R. Kelly and 50 Cent for the young 'uns, Cheryl Lynn and McFadden and Whitehead for those who came of age in the 1980s, and Al Green for the older folks.

The Arch is both a gathering spot for its members and a bar and nightclub open to the public. It's a popular place on Fridays and Saturdays--patrons have their choice of the Red Room downstairs, which plays old-school R&B (no rap music allowed), or they can go upstairs to the Ball Room, which features a wide selection of hip-hop, house, and contemporary radio hits.

The Arch is just eight years shy of its 100th birthday, and loyal members say they hope to see it continue on for another 100. But despite its success in the past, the generation gap is threatening to keep the club, formed during more genteel times, from remaining viable through the next century.

Chartered in March 1912, the Arch Social Club was created, according to its constitution, "for the social, moral, and intellectual uplift of its members and in order that charity may be practiced in a Christian-like spirit and true friendship and brotherly love be promoted and maintained." Its first location was at Stokes' Restaurant at Arch and Josephine streets on downtown's west side, which was home to many influential African-Americans at the turn of the century. Over the years, the club moved among various West Baltimore locations before finally settling in 1972 at its present spot at the corner of Pennsylvania and North avenues.

Membership lists from the Arch's early days indicate the Arch drew individuals from a broad cross section of society. The 1920-'21 member roster, for example, lists 119 members. Some were affluent, like Dr. Harry Brown of 1501 Presstman St. and attorney William McCard of 1940 Druid Hill Ave.; the majority of the members, though, were barbers, chauffeurs, porters, undertakers, and other professions common among black men of the time.

Inside the club, members played cards, ate, listened to music, talked politics, and enjoyed cocktails. During Prohibition, the Arch served bootleg hooch, but once Prohibition ended in 1933, the club was one of the first places in Baltimore to get its liquor license. Women were allowed to enter the club for dinners and social gatherings, but only men could be members. The club's single-sex membership rule is still in effect today.

The Arch was not just a social outlet, though--to this day, it still serves a humanitarian and civic purpose in the city. When a member becomes sick, for example, other members are required to visit with him. Dues paid to the Arch help pay sick benefits for unemployed members and provide death benefits to the widows of club members.

Unfortunately, the times have changed since the Arch's founding, and a men's-only club for African-Americans is something of a relic in a modern city. Over the years, membership has dwindled; whereas the club used to boast 120 members, today there are only 60 registered members. And of those, says Arch Chairman Jerry Owens, only about 20 are active.

The club was formed partly in response to segregation: In 1912, blacks were barred from many nightclubs and restaurants--if they were allowed inside such establishments at all, it was because they were performers or servers. Membership in clubs like the Arch gave black men a social outlet, but desegregation (in addition to the push for women's rights) made restricted-membership organizations less popular. Owens says he remembers that Baltimore used to have several black men's clubs, but very few exist today: the Arch and another called Balkan Blazers.

"What made us once strong was segregation," says 54-year-old Arch member Kaled Tshamba. "We were in a battle against racism, and segregation kept us united. Today we can go anywhere we want."

These days, there's a big push by the club to attract younger members, especially men in their late 20s and early 30s. Most of the club's current members, Owens says, are in their 50s and 60s. Owens, 69, says the older men can be very set in their ways, which can turn away the younger crowd.

"The older men would probably overpower them," he says. "[Younger men] are used to saying, 'I've got an idea,' and having everyone go along with it. They're not used to being voted down."

Tshamba, a member since 1997, says the Arch is holding a recruitment drive to bring in the younger guys. When male patrons leave the club, they're given fliers inviting them to join, and the club has lowered the initiation fee from $100 to $35.

But not all members agree on what changes need to be made to draw the interest of potential initiates. According to club member Jim Staton, lowering initiation fees is a good start, but he says adapting to the desires of the new generation of black men is also important. For example, he wonders if the Arch's rather formal dress code ought to be reconsidered. Right now, many of the clothing choices of young people--jeans, construction boots, sweats, and sneakers--are no-nos.

"I understand that gentleman are supposed to take off their hats when coming into a building," Staton says. "But some things have got to change."

Other members argue, however, that a strict dress code ensures peace and respectability in the club. Unlike at other nightclubs, where fights and drug activity are common, things rarely get out of hand at the Arch. Members keep a close watch on activities in the club, and they react quickly to bar patrons who don't abide by the rules.

"Besides, guys don't want to mess up their good clothes fighting," Owens says. "And the ladies like to see the guys dressed up, too."

"That's why I like it,² agrees 57-year-old Donell Golden, who used to patronize the Arch in the '60s and '70s. She stopped coming after she had children, but she says she started coming back again in the '90s. In 2002, tragedy struck Golden's family when an East Baltimore drug dealer threw a Molotov cocktail into the window of her daughter's home. Her daughter, Angela Dawson, her husband, and their five children were killed in the blaze.

"I just started coming back out again,² says Golden. "This is like a family atmosphere. . . . It's classy, and there's no disturbance.²

But despite the haven the Arch is for some, members like Staton still think it's time for the club to look forward. There's a way to maintain respectability, he says, but still remain viable and relevant.

"The club is falling on hard times," Staton says. "We used to have a crowd seven nights a week. We're just not bringing in the revenue that we used to. I feel like with a little bit of change, we can do that."

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