Street of Dreams
Pennsylvania Avenue Was Once the Center of Black Life and Culture in Baltimore—Can it Be Again? The Second of a Two-Part Series
“Oh, look, a tree grows in Brooklyn,” Mitchell says, suddenly misty-eyed about newly built housing at the corner of Pennsylvania and Gold Street. The sidewalks outside the neat little brick units are cleanly swept and neat. There are cars in a few driveways and curtains hanging in windows. But, as Mitchell quickly adds, “there are still three liquor stores across the street.”
Over the past 75 years, Mitchell and the rest of his family, a black Baltimore political dynasty known best for Michael’s uncle, former U.S. Rep. Parren J. Mitchell, and his father, Clarence Mitchell Jr., the civil-rights activist and lawyer known as the “101st Senator,” have worked to uplift black Baltimore, and life on Pennsylvania Avenue in particular. In fact, Michael Mitchell’s parents, Clarence Mitchell Jr. and Juanita Jackson Mitchell, were active in the City-Wide Young People’s Forum, an organization that picketed white store owners on the Avenue for increased African-American employment opportunities (“Street of Dreams, Part 1,” Feb. 2).
And throughout the past 50 years, Mitchell, who was born in 1945, has seen many attempts to revitalize Pennsylvania Avenue, most of which didn’t stick. Still, he says he feels that a resurgence of the Avenue can happen, if this corner he’s standing on today is any indication.
“I feel that a [renewal] can happen if that same formula can happen,” he says, “with stable homeownership and resurgence of businesses within the community and an economic mix of residents.”
Like Mitchell, many people who have cared for this area over the years are wondering if the current revitalization efforts will finally uplift Pennsylvania Avenue and its surrounding neighborhood after decades of decline. While the city and state seem to be paying more attention to the Avenue than they have in years, it remains open to question how much good cash-strapped local and state governments can do. And while certain Baltimore neighborhoods are flush with cash from private developers and investors, Upton is not one of those neighborhoods, at least not now.
Perhaps even more perplexing than the question of how the Avenue might come back are the questions about what it might come back as. Should it be developed as a historical area to draw tourist dollars or as a neighborhood for those who chose to live there, with an emphasis on day-to-day business rather than the nightlife strip of old? In a city still bleeding citizens each year, how do you draw new residents and businesses to an area with such a rich legacy and such a troubled recent past? And what can those who plan and hope for the future of Pennsylvania Avenue learn from its path to this point?
“The old saying that you don’t realize what you’ve got until it’s gone is so true here,” Rick Sussman says. Sussman, 48, and his 78-year-old father, Seymour, own the oldest business on the Avenue—their Northwestern Loan Co. pawn shop was opened by Seymour’s father, Joseph, in 1919 and has operated here for 86 years. While the older Sussman sits a few feet away from the younger Sussman in the shop’s crowded back office, it is easy to note their similarities. Both lean, lithe, and boyishly blue-eyed, they wear similar khaki pants and blue-striped shirts as they revisit the ups and downs of the Avenue over the past 60 years.
“The [first] major problem was when the market was burned down,” Seymour Sussman says, getting a grieved look on his face at that memory. The wooden Lafayette Market, originally constructed in 1871, had long served as Pennsylvania Avenue’s commercial center. In the days before supermarkets dotted the city (and back in the days when the neighborhood’s black residents wouldn’t have been able to shop at them anyway), nearly everyone in Old West Baltimore (now Upton) did their weekly shopping there. When the Lafayette Market caught fire and burned to the ground in 1953 business on the Avenue took a critical hit. Consequently, merchants had to band together to survive, organizing the Pennsylvania Avenue Lafayette Market Association (PALMA), a body of which Seymour Sussman is a charter member. (Lafayette Market was rebuilt and reopened in 1957; it was later refurbished and reopened as the Avenue Market in 1996.)
As the ’60s and the social changes they brought swept over Baltimore, life on and around Pennsylvania Avenue underwent other far-reaching changes. As segregation lost its grip on the city, black families with sufficient means began moving out of the neighborhood, leaving lower-income families to support area businesses. When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 rioting broke out in Baltimore.
“Those were worrisome times,” Rick Sussman says. Father and son remember when rioters broke into their storage room, but they say their well-established presence on the Avenue kept the pawn shop from being looted and destroyed in the way other stores were all over Baltimore. “We had been here for some 50 years, and we were a part of the neighborhood,” Seymour Sussman says. “People knew that we were not here today, gone tomorrow.”
By 1970, the Avenue’s glory days had so faded that the unthinkable happened: The Royal Theater, which had been to the Avenue culturally what the Lafayette Market had been commercially, closed its doors in 1970. Even more unthinkable, especially in hindsight, the building that had housed the Royal for more than 50 years was torn down in 1971. The demolition was part of a movement that, in some ways, was every bit as influential on the Avenue’s present straits as desegregation: “urban renewal.”
There was no doubt that the falling-down houses and half-vacant storefronts of Pennsylvania Avenue in the late ’60s needed renewing. According to 74-year-old Rose Jones, a longtime West Baltimore resident and a former member of the Upton Planning Committee, residents around the Avenue were “pretty intense” about wanting improvements in the neighborhood, especially in the wake of the ’68 riots. The effort to bring then-plentiful federal funds to bear on a new plan for the area was spearheaded by Upton Planning Committee President Leena Boone, aka “the mayor of Upton.” And, in keeping with the prevailing practice at the time, renewal meant tearing down and rebuilding rather than refurbishing.
Beginning in 1970 and continuing for several years, urban renewal brought to the neighborhood “810 units of new housing up and down Pennsylvania Avenue,” Jones recalls, a supermarket (originally called Our Supermarket before its eventual conversion to a Stop, Shop, and Save), schools, and recreation centers. To make way for all of the new projects, however, much of the old Avenue and the surrounding neighborhood was leveled before public enthusiasm and federal funding for such projects began to wane in the late ’70s.
“I don’t think Lena realized how important those landmarks were,” says 69-year-old Cleveland “Cleve” Brister, a recently retired city Department of Recreation and Parks employee, who as a boy sold copies of the Afro-American on Pennsylvania Avenue. “And it wasn’t just her decision—a few prominent [black] people in Baltimore helped her.” When asked, he declines to say who.
The Sussmans remember that area residents didn’t get upset about the demolition at first. “It wasn’t until they were gone for a while that people realized it was shortsighted to tear down buildings that had so much history,” Rick Sussman says.
While he admits that “we had tough times—especially in the early to mid-’70s, when [many of the] landmarks were torn down”—Rick Sussman says his family remained committed to the Avenue. For one thing, they experienced segregation, too: “If you were Jewish, you couldn’t just live anywhere [in Baltimore City] or open a business anywhere,” Seymour Sussman says. So the Sussmans have chosen to stay because of the storms they have weathered and the memories.
“Many of our customers are children and great grands of our original customers who say to us, `I was here when I was a kid. I hear stories of this area. So I wanted to [come back here and] connect with my roots,’” Seymour Sussman says.
“Every other ethnicity has their own neighborhood to call home within the city,” says George Gilliam, executive director of the Pennsylvania Avenue Redevelopment Collaborative (PARC). “Why can’t the Avenue be our Little Italy?”
As the youthful-looking 51-year-old makes this pronouncement in his office on the lower level of the Shake ’n’ Bake Recreation Center (formerly the Regent Theater, one of Pennsylvania Avenue’s gems), some might mistake the optimism on his face as naiveté. But Gilliam says that he is kept optimistic through focusing on the positive and an unflinching hope in the future of Pennsylvania Avenue.
At the same time, he acknowledges, “It’s hard to pull everybody back together to unite in this effort after the Avenue has been neglected for 30 years. We can sit back and complain until we’re purple—but that doesn’t do anything.”
Gilliam was hired in 2000 by Mayor Martin O’Malley to run PARC, a nonprofit that serves as an umbrella organization to businesses, neighborhood associations, and churches in the Pennsylvania Avenue area. Since then he has overseen the cleaning up of what was an empty lot at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Lafayette Street, former site of the Royal, and the building of a brick monument to the demolished theater—the first sign of what he hopes will be a renewed interest in the Avenue, its history, and its fortunes among locals and visitors alike.
Gilliam has a history with tourism in the city. In 1985 he opened Total Picture Tours, a business that booked helicopter tours, yacht chartering, and limousine services on Pier 4. “We did tours by land, air, and sea,” he chuckles to himself. The city shut down his business due to the National Aquarium expansion on Pier 4 in 1987, and Gilliam worked for a while as a talent manager while waiting for the city to relocate him. But a sudden turn of events in 1993 brought him to Pennsylvania Avenue: His son Marcus Gilliam, 23, was gunned down while leaving a carry-out restaurant at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Bloom Street. (Gilliam also lost his wife, Stephanie, in 2003 to violence in East Baltimore.)
“I decided that I wanted to work with youth in this neighborhood right after that,” Gilliam says of his son’s murder. “I never want to see anyone experience the hurt and the loss that my family did. I want to teach our young people about the rich heritage and community that they came from so they know that their lives have meaning, and so do the lives of their brothers and sisters.”
And for the last five years, Gilliam has worked with the city’s Main Streets program on getting the Royal Theater Monument, bringing jazz back to the Avenue Market (with crowds to the tune 800 to 1,200 people each Friday until 2003) and bringing the tradition of the Cadillac Parade back to the Avenue nine years ago each fall.
“Pennsylvania Avenue was known for its great parades,” he says. “The Cadillac was one that we could use to incorporate all elements—the cars, the entertainers, and marching bands—to re-create the sense of pride and celebration, thereby brining the rhythm back to Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Future PARC plans call for new streetscaping on the Avenue, including new trees and shrubbery, new streetlights, new trash cans, and other beautification measures, as well as a project in conjunction with Morgan State University to build “Legend Park,” a social gathering place for the community across from the Avenue Market at Laurens Street. Gilliam says he envisions jazz shows, flea markets, and such. Further off in the future, he hopes to broker a deal to rebuild the Royal Theater with the help of a private developer, to bring in big retail stores to anchor the Avenue’s blocks, to lure nightclubs to these once hopping sidewalks, and to otherwise rebuild the commercial corridor, which is now marked by vacant buildings and empty lots.
Much of the money for the Royal Monument and streetscaping initiative has come from the Baltimore Main Streets program and other private funders such as members of PARC. The Upton, Druid Heights, Sandtown-Winchester, and Penn North neighborhood associations, the Pennsylvania Avenue Merchants Association, and area churches contribute annually to PARC’s effort to the tune of approximately $15,000 a year. In addition, he says that $720,000 in city money has already been budgeted for such programs over the last five years, and $400,000 has been spent to date.
“This is just the beginning,” Gilliam says. “I understand that we have other money coming from the Baltimore City Department of Transportation that will equal over $1 million for streetscaping alone,” though he adds that this money would be dispersed over several years.
While Gilliam can offer bits and pieces of the Avenue revitalization puzzle—like the fact that a $45 million rebuild of the Royal Theater would include a jazz club, restaurant, and 800-car parking garage—he can’t give specific details on how it’s going to be paid for or when it will happen. When pressed to estimate exactly how much money it would take to revitalize the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor, assuming such funds could be procured, Gilliam can’t give a number.
“As a collaborative, we’re getting together to start that conversation going about how much money we need in all to rebuild this commercial corridor,” he says at last. “Our job is ongoing.”
Gilliam is not the only one who spends his days thinking of ways to revitalize Pennsylvania Avenue. Bill Pencek is the director, through the mayor’s office, of the Baltimore City Heritage Area, one of PARC’s partners in the revitalization effort. The local Heritage Area office is part of a statewide program of 12 Heritage areas that have been “designed to promote historic preservation and areas of natural beauty in order to stimulate economic development through tourism,” according to a Maryland Historical Trust web site. Pennsylvania Avenue was declared a Heritage Area in 2001, one of 11 Heritage Area investment zones in the city.
Pencek, who has worked with the Mayor’s Heritage Areas office since 2002, also talks of big plans to draw attention to Pennsylvania Avenue and its crucial role in local African-American history. Some $100,000 is soon to be secured through grants for the Pennsylvania Avenue Heritage Trail, a collaboration between the city Heritage Area, the Maryland Historical Trust, and the Maryland State Arts Council, along with other partners, such as PARC and the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute, to design and install signage to mark important places and dates in the history of entertainment along the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor, as well as fund a web site and a printed brochure. “This is a project to create a heritage trail that will . . . make visible that currently invisible history and richness,” Pencek says.
The city Heritage Area, PARC, the Upton Planning Council, and others have also joined forces to apply for $25,000 in grant funds from the Maryland Historical Trust to study doing something with the now-vacant Henry Highland Garnett School—the elementary school legendary Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall attended while he was growing up on nearby Division Street.
“We probably haven’t done enough to highlight the legacy of Marshall in this town,” Pencek says. “What better place than in the community where he grew up? And I think there are a lot of community partners who recognize that more than ever before.”
If all goes well, that’s a total of $140,000 dollars from city and state Heritage Area funds to draw new interest, prestige, and tourism dollars to Pennsylvania Avenue. Pencek contends that the Avenue is doing well on the grant front, considering that it has to compete for a share of the $900,000 allocated each year for all of the other Heritage Areas across the state. (For example, the Mount Vernon Cultural District won a $50,000 Heritage Areas grant in 2002 for “wayfinding signage.”)
Whether or not this piece of the money pie is significant enough, Pencek maintains that he is committed to the effort. “The history and the accomplishments [of this area] are incredible,” he says. “And we need, as a community, to be serious about sharing that cultural heritage with the world—not just keeping our light under a bushel here in Baltimore.”
Like Gilliam, Pencek also talks of major projects along the Avenue: rehabbing the Sphinx Club in the 2100 block, refurbishing the facade of the Arch Social Club in the 2400 block, and restoring the Billie Holiday statue at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Lafayette Street. (Gilliam says that the statue, erected in 1975, was never fully completed; it is supposed to sit on a 6-foot pedestal inscribed with Holiday’s songs.) These are the types of efforts, Pencek says, that can make the neighborhood the place to be again. But money to help is trickling in, not flooding, and Heritage Area grants can only take the Avenue so far.
“The Heritage Trail in and of itself is not going to turn the neighborhood around,” Pencek says. “But community revitalization is not about the big bang. It’s about dozens and dozens of positive forward-moving signs of progress. To make a place really hum you have to have the investment of a lot of individuals and businesses.”
On an unseasonably warm afternoon in January, Baltimore Development Corp. President M.J. “Jay” Brodie looks relaxed in a crisp navy blue suit. Brodie is the top executive on the city’s Main Streets Initiative, a program that uses a community-revitalization model developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and applied to more than 1,500 communities since 1980.
In addition, Brodie has just come from the funeral of old friend Sam Daniels, with whom he used to frequent jazz haunts like Gamby’s and the Red Fox Club just off Pennsylvania Avenue back in the ’70s. For one reason or another, Brodie has spent a lot of the morning giving thought to the Avenue of yesteryear.
“I had a piece of it way back,” he says. “I was [city] housing commissioner from 1977 to 1983. And I was deputy housing commissioner for nine years before that. I was in charge of all of the urban-renewal projects, one of which was Upton.”
In fact, Brodie says, “what you see going up from Martin Luther King up to where Pennsylvania Avenue and Freemont come together and on both sides, Division and McCullogh—all of that may have been the largest urban-renewal effort in the country at that time. And there were hundreds of community meetings—literally in every block.” Most of the community groups, however, were working to save their neighborhoods from urban renewal itself.
Still, Brodie seems to find some pride about the work that was done to revitalize the Avenue some 20 years ago. “I think the housing has worked pretty well,” he says. “It looks solid, it’s been generally well-maintained.” With the high-rise Murphy Homes housing projects demolished and the low-rise Heritage Crossing in place, Brodie says, “all of the bad housing is gone.
“But what I don’t think we’ve ever solved, and we’re still working at it, is the commercial [aspect] of things,” he says.
In his current work with the Baltimore Development Corp., the city’s economic development arm, Brodie spends his days attempting to lure businesses and developers into investing in Baltimore. And from a developer’s standpoint, he says, there are challenges that come with redeveloping an aging, declining neighborhood: the physical demands made by modern retail (supermarkets need parking for cars and a loading dock for trucks, for example), getting investors to believe that the residents can afford a variety of goods and services, and the competition for goods and services just as easily gotten in other neighborhoods.
“Life has changed in a very major way in America in terms of retail [business],” Brodie says. “There was no internet, there was no Wal-Mart, there were no malls [years ago]. All of that makes it harder for an older area to survive.”
What does an age in which people can shop anywhere, including at home in their pajamas, bode for a revitalized Pennsylvania Avenue? Brodie says he’s still figuring all of that out. “The challenge both for us and for private-sector folks—who are mainly what drives the American economy—is to try to figure out what’s viable commercially,” he says.
One thing that will help, Brodie says, is that basic human needs have stayed the same since the 1930s and ’40s. “There is a mass of customers in Upton and nearby who need all the things that everybody needs,” he says. “They need toothpaste, they need tissue paper, they need food, they need doctors and dentists, they need lawyers and accountants. They need basic human needs.” If those needs can be supplied “in a clean and safe and attractive commercial area in close proximity to a number of people, it will work,” he says.
Brodie points to the fact that the Avenue Market will soon boast a Murray’s Steaks store. “The [Avenue] Market within its walls has never had that sort of an anchor, and we believe that’s a plus,” he says. “But this is an ongoing [effort]. We don’t have all of the answers in the back of the book.” He pauses. “In fact, there is no book.”
One of the textbook forces that often drives neighborhood revitalization is an influx of middle- and upper-middle-class wage earners into an area, aka gentrification. In recent years, traditionally lower- and middle-income and predominantly white Baltimore neighborhoods such as Canton and Hamilton have enjoyed a surge in new middle-class residents, bringing with them skyrocketing property values and waves of stores, restaurants, and other new investments. And New York’s famed Harlem neighborhood has, after many years of struggling, begun to see an upsurge in property values as new residents both black and white “rediscover” the area.
Brodie is quick to caution that Pennsylvania Avenue shouldn’t count on its own Harlem-style neo-renaissance. “Baltimore is nothing like New York, so Pennsylvania Avenue is not like Harlem,” he says. “There are enormous differences in density and market forces in terms of driving housing prices up. And it also has racial implication, because nobody a generation ago would have said, ‘White people are going to move to Harlem.’ [People thought] that’s just not going to happen.”
But gentrification, Baltimore City Department of Planning Director Otis Rolley III says, “is not necessarily a bad thing, if it’s done in a way that is respectful of the community that was in existence. . . .
“Desegregation was both a benefit and a problem to Pennsylvania Avenue,” Rolley continues. “And the same thing happened in Harlem, Philly, Jersey City, and other neighborhoods” that were formerly segregated. When people began to move out, he says, the communities lost their diverse economic mix. Rebuilding that mix, he adds, is what residents, local government, and development partners should focus on.
“Imagine that I am a young child to parents of a lower income,” Rolley says. “But down the street there are police officers, and next door there is a reporter or a planner. This is how a child sees that there are options [in life].”
But middle-class homeowners and renters not only want amenities; they want to feel safe. There were 30 murders in Baltimore City in the first 30 days of 2005. In 2004, there were 278 murders in the city, three of which occurred in the Upton area. On any given afternoon, the people strolling the Avenue to go to the store, to work, or back to their homes share the sidewalk with others who stare vacantly, obviously under the effects of narcotics.
Sgt. Charles Hess, Neighborhood Supervisor the Central District of the Baltimore Police Department, says that the area does not normally have many burglaries, but narcotics crimes have been a problem. Overall, however, “crime is being reduced,” he says, crediting more arrests and more citizen involvement through Citizens on Patrol and other community crime-reduction programs.
Brodie says that crime is decreasing in the Upton area. “Is it as good as it should be yet?” he asks. “No, it’s got to be better.”
And then there is the issue of race. Rick Sussman say the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor boasts a racially diverse mix of merchants, including whites, African-Americans, and Koreans. But the issue of who owns the businesses on the Avenue is still something of a touchy one, despite the fact that the color most important to Pennsylvania Avenue’s commercial future is green.
“Would it be a good thing to have more black ownership in the future Pennsylvania Avenue? Absolutely,” Brodie says. “But does that ownership alone guarantee commercial success? No.”
If Seymour and Rick Sussman believe Pennsylvania Avenue should be revitalized so that the descendants of those who lived, worked, and played here can see the fruit of their ancestors’ efforts, then 35-year-old Teresa Stephens exemplifies that reason. Stephens’ parents lived in Upton in the ’70s and visited the area during their own childhoods. Given the fond memories handed down to her about the Avenue while growing up on Shields Place, it’s no wonder that Stephens chose to live in Upton after graduating from West Virginia State College in 1993. Being civic-minded, she soon got involved with the neighborhood. She is now president of the Upton Planning Committee, an umbrella organization for about 25 churches, neighborhood organizations, and businesses in Upton.
“I got into it thinking [my involvement] would be about bake sales, yard sales, and clean blocks,” she says, chuckling at her naiveté. “But instead it’s been about master plans, the Royal Theater Monument, and historical review from different foundations and organizations, urban-renewal amendments.”
Last year, the Upton Planning Committee unveiled a master plan that calls for changes to the neighborhood including “revitalizing businesses and revitalizing entertainment centers along Pennsylvania Avenue corridor, developing a marketing campaign targeted to highlighting the community’s African-American heritage; preserving existing housing stock . . . and greening projects and doing away with one-way streets” (“Upton Downs,” Mobtown Beat, Sept. 29, 2004). Since “most of the historical portion of Pennsylvania Avenue falls within Upton’s boundaries,” she says, describing the area between Dolphin Street and North Avenue, the Avenue has become one of her major concerns.
Stephens’ youth and her involvement in the Upton Planning Committee signal something of a breath of fresh air for the renewal efforts in her neighborhood, and she believes it’s catching on.
“When I started being involved in the community, I found that a lot of people in my neighborhood were so used to having political representation [that told them], ‘This is how you have to do it, this is how things are going to be,’” she says. “But now I see a different [sort of] resident. We are taking charge of our neighborhoods. [People] are becoming involved, and they want to start seeing the vacant properties become occupied—be it renter or homeowner, just someone who will buy into or support the neighborhood in a positive way.”
Stephens is grateful to all of the government offices and nonprofit entities that are helping in the revitalization effort. Yet she seems to believe that an army of caring neighborhood residents can effect its own change—even if it’s one stoop at a time. And she believes that revitalization hinges on a Pennsylvania Avenue that differs from that of old in some key ways, “You can add some diversity and still keep the history” of the Avenue, she says.
Most important, however, is another kind of diversity. “The residents and the neighborhood want to see Pennsylvania Avenue as a place where were can go for quality products and services,” Stephens says.
Otis Rolley agrees. “Pennsylvania Avenue right now is very active [commercially],” he says. “The problem is around the diversity of choice for a customer. I live in Northwest Baltimore, four blocks from Reisterstown Road Plaza. I have a lot of choice—not 58 versions of the same stores.”
“Just because it’s a black community, and just because right now we’re redeveloping and getting rid of vacant homes, for example, doesn’t mean we want a fried chicken joint on every corner,” Stephens adds. “We want people to begin to think beyond stereotypes in the inner city. We want dry cleaners, quality restaurants, coffee shops, bookstores . . . if we could get a large chain store like an Old Navy.”
Despite the distance Pennsylvania Avenue has to go, Jay Brodie, too, is guardedly positive. Take, for example, the parallel he dismissed before: Harlem.
“Harlem struggled for 20 or 30 years to get a supermarket,” he says. “They now have a major Pathmark type of market in West Harlem. But it took a very long time to make it work, and developers were concerned—they didn’t think there was enough disposable income to support a major supermarket.”
But Stephens suggests city planners and developers think outside the box. The residents of the area, she says, have long awaited revitalization, and she believes that, given hard work, financial resources, and local political backing, the people and the money will come. But the old Pennsylvania Avenue is never coming back.
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