Baltimore City and B&O Railroad Museum
Team Up to Construct a New Stable For Displaced Arabbers.
"A horse trots in the lot where temporary tent stables for arabber ponies are set up underneath the Monroe Street Bridge in West Baltimore".
By Charles Cohen
After almost two years of living as exiles in their own city, it looks like Baltimore's Arabbers--African-American produce peddlers who for generations have sold their goods from horse-drawn carts--may finally be moving into a permanent home ("All the Pretty Horses," Mobtown Beat, Aug. 22, 2007; "Horse Nonsense," Mobtown Beat, Oct. 3, 2007; "Homeless Horses," Quick and Dirty, Mobtown Beat, April 23, 2008; "In-Stable-ility," Mobtown Beat, April 30, 2008).
According to city officials, a new stable for the community of Arabbers removed from a city-owned building on Retreat Street in 2007 will be built on property owned by the B&O Railroad Museum just across the train tracks from Carroll Mansion in Southwest Baltimore. Right now, the arabbers and about 20 of their horses are operating out of temporary tent stables on a muddy lot next to the railroad tracks under the Monroe Street bridge in West Baltimore. Construction on a new stable, the Arabbers hope, could begin by the end of 2009.
"I got my beliefs," says Donald "Manboy" Savoy, the elder of the community of displaced Arabbers, who owns the majority of the horses with his son Donald Savoy Jr. "They promised they are going to do something. I believe them."
On Aug. 8, 2007, the city condemned the dilapidated stables the arabbers were using to house their horses and carts, located on Retreat Street, an alley near North and Pennsylvania avenues. City inspectors deemed the building unsafe and in danger of collapse, so the city condemned it and promised to move the horses to a temporary location until it could find a suitable place to build new stables. The city even held a press conference at which Deputy Mayor Andrew Franks stressed the "importance of preserving the rich traditions of the Arabbers of Baltimore City."
But since then, the city has not come through on its promises to find the horses a new home. Since the Retreat Street condemnation, a number of plans have been proposed only to fall through, including a plan to bring the arabbers into the effort to revitalize the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor. When the stables were closed, the horses were first transported to the Bowie Race Track in Prince George's County, then to tent stables set up in the parking lot of Pimlico Race Track. In December 2007, they were once again moved, this time to the temporary tent stables on Monroe Street. In April 2008, Mayor Sheila Dixon said that the city had done enough to help keep the Arabbing tradition alive: "It's important that they pull themselves together to sustain themselves," she said last spring, and the city said it would only help the Arabbers if they put together a business plan.
But when the B&O Railroad Museum offered to lease a site to the city for one dollar per year on which to build a permanent stable for the horses, the city accepted. According to Mayor Sheila Dixon, it was the museum's involvement that made it feasible for the city to build the new stable.
"If it wasn't for the B&O stepping forward, along with what we are doing in the city, I think we would have probably lost [the Arabbers]," she says. "We're excited about it,"
A new nonprofit organization, called Arabber Heritage Inc., was incorporated with the state on Jan. 9. The organization, which includes members of the Pennsylvania Avenue Redevelopment Collaborative (PARC), the B&O Railroad Museum, and the Arabber Preservation Society, will manage the new stable.
Dan Van Allen, an occasional City Paper contributor and president of the Arabber Preservation Society, a nonprofit organization that was set up in 1994 to help the arabbers maintain the Retreat Street stable when it was still standing, says he is guardedly optimistic that the city and this new nonprofit may actually come through.
"I do feel it's credible," he says. "I don't know why, but I'm hoping they will follow through."
Part of the reason for that optimism is the fact that Courtney Wilson, director of the B&O Museum, has taken an interest in the horsemen and -women whose temporary stables are located on the far western edge of the museum's property. Wilson declined several requests for interviews, but the arabbers themselves say that visitors to the B&O were intrigued by the goings-on at the stable, visible from the windows of the antique train that takes tourists on rides past Carroll Mansion. The intent is to incorporate the Arabbers with the railroad museum by making the new stables a stop on the antique-rail tour.
"[The Arabbers] have been interacting with the tourists and the museum really likes it," Van Allen says. "They want to keep them there."
The city will provide a $35,000 per year grant to the Arabber Heritage organization, which will manage the new stables. The city will diminish the allocation each year, until the operation becomes self-sustaining.
"We are working on a strategy to make sure the Arabbers as a culture can keep going and have a home in Baltimore," says James Hamlin, director of the Pennsylvania Avenue Redevelopment Corp. and a board member of Arabber Heritage.
Early on in the arabber saga, Hamlin had advocated for preservation of the Arabber way of life as part of the city's Historic African-American heritage. If this new stable is built, Hamlin and others hope, it will make it possible to connect the produce-peddlers to the African-American historic tourism. A Heritage Trail has been established along Pennsylvania Avenue that points out Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall's childhood home, the Mitchell family residence, and the location where the famed jazz club the Royal Theater once stood. Ironically, if the Arabbers were still at their Retreat Street stables, not far from these historic markers, they could have been another major anchor in the Heritage Trail. But Hamlin thinks that right now it's important to preserve the tradition by getting Arabbers involved in both the tourist trade and also the practical trade of selling fresh produce to neighborhoods throughout the city.
"The worst thing in the world was in 1971 when the Royal Theater was taken down," Hamlin says. "We don't want this [the Arabbers] taken away."
A 'soul' street gets a makeover from city New park to commemorate Jazz Legends who performed along Pennsylvania Ave.
By Jessica Anderson | Sun reporter
City Mayor Sheila Dixon (right) speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony at the future site of Legends Park.
The area has been vacant for years, just a large patch of grass and a few scattered trees enclosed by a fence at Fremont and Pennsylvania avenues. But city officials are planning to transform the blighted spot into a plaza, complete with a stage for outdoor performances, called Legends Park. "Grass and a couple of trees are good, but we can do better," M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., said at an event Monday to break ground on the new project. "It was all dirt for a long time." But now, he added, "It will be inspiring for people."
The $275,000 project will provide lighting and a paved plaza with chess and checker tables to accommodate an informal, outdoor concert venue in an effort to commemorate -- and revive -- a bit of Baltimore's musical past.
The park is named "Legends" for the number of famous former residents and musicians who got their start along the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor.
The area was known as a jazz hot spot after World War II, said James Hamlin, president of the Pennsylvania Avenue Redevelopment Collaborative. "If you wanted to experience jazz, you came to Pennsylvania Avenue," Hamlin said. Pennsylvania Avenue "was the epicenter of entertainment" for African-Americans, said Tamm E. Hunt, a jazz recording artist, historian and author of Jazz Baltimore: The Unsung Mecca. "It was one of America's 'soul' streets." Hunt listed a number of musicians who got their start or performed regularly in Baltimore. She said the Royal Theater was the biggest venue, featuring such acts as Chick Webb, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday, who would later live in the Upton neighborhood.
"The same acts that played at the Apollo played at the Royal," she said. Pennsylvania Avenue "was a real destination." In addition to the numerous jazz musicians, the area was home to artists, entertainers, and business and national leaders, including former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and Rep. Parren J. Mitchell. But over time, the neighborhood began to lose its identity as a hub of African-American culture and entertainment, Hunt said, and the Pennsylvania Avenue began to lose many of its celebrated clubs.
To honor Baltimore's influential musical past and other notable figures from the area, the new park will feature a wall bearing the names of the "Legends." The park will help community members today "gain a rich sense of their ancestors who grew up, worked and played here," Mayor Sheila Dixon said.
Community leaders are working to revitalize the neighborhood and bring back some of its former luster with other projects, including the neighboring Heritage Trail and the Avenue Market across the street from Legends Park. For the first time in 40 years, a new entertainment club has opened in the area: Chopper's Tavern on Pennsylvania Avenue. The owner, Raymond Nelson, said he is trying to bring entertainment back to the neighborhood by featuring jazz artists and "giving back to new people."
The park is part of a larger $3 million revitalization plan that includes redoing Pennsylvania Avenue from Mosher to Gold streets, a new mural project and redevelopment of the Sphinx Club. The new park is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
Pennsylvania Avenue of the past is his vision for future.
By Michael Olesker
James Hamlin still sees Pennsylvania Avenue in all its tumultuous splendor. This makes him a great visionary, or a sentimental dreamer. Or both. In his mind's eye, a kid named Little Stevie Wonder's opening at the Royal Theatre. The Temptations are strolling down the street, and the Four Tops are pausing to get their shoes shined, and Redd Foxx is still showing up to convulse audiences with laughter. Pennsylvania Avenue is in West Baltimore. Hamlin lives in Sykesville. That's some long-distance vision he has.
He is 57 years old and left West Baltimore back in 1976. First it was whites leaving the city as fast as they could, and then middle-class blacks. Hamlin remembers the first exodus, and he was part of the second. What was left behind, in places such as Pennsylvania Avenue, was a shambles. Some of it still exists.
Hamlin knows he can't exactly bring back the past. But he has a pretty strong sense of history, a lingering affection for his old section of town, and a businessman's sense that maybe the time has arrived to bring new life to Pennsylvania Avenue, and to the Royal Theatre, gone since its tattered remains were demolished in 1971.
Now retired after 35 years in management at UPS, Hamlin heads the Royal Theatre and Community Heritage Corp., a group of businesspeople and community activists energized by a sense of nostalgia as well as a desire for profit.
They've watched so many sections of the city that have sprung back to life in recent years and are asking a question many have long felt was preposterous: Why not Pennsylvania Avenue?
If you went through there yesterday, you had the usual answers: vacant, rotted buildings, grinding poverty. In a gentle morning rain, half a dozen teenagers stood near a Chinese carry-out long after the start of school. An old woman pushed a rickety shopping cart filled with her belongings across a vacant lot. Some men outside a check-cashing operation shared a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag. When the middle class was leaving, these were the people who became the leftover class.
But, in some ways, Pennsylvania Avenue is a comeback area trying to outlive a bruising but slightly outdated reputation. Long ago the commercial and cultural heart of black Baltimore - with its legendary nightclubs, its shops and markets, and musicians dating to Louis Armstrong and Nat "King" Cole performing at the Royal Theatre when it was part of the so-called "Chitlin Circuit" - the area was then staggered repeatedly: by the 1968 riots and the business exodus that followed; by crippling drug traffic and the crime and family breakdown it produced; and then by black middle class flight. For a long time, it's been a symbol of urban angst.
But there are strengths here, too: the Lafayette Market, the energy of the business strip just above it, the organized youth activities, the neighborhood churches and some strips of relatively new housing that replaced some of the hopelessly decayed old buildings. Now, says Hamlin, the time is right for a larger comeback. "It's not just about bringing back the Royal Theatre," he says. "But that's the symbol of the rebirth. It's part of the history, and a chance to provide jobs and opportunities and pride. But the real goal is bringing back the heritage of this community, the culture, the showcasing of talent, the political strength."
The last still strikes a chord with older generations. This, after all, is the area of Baltimore that produced Thurgood Marshall and Kweisi Mfume, the Mitchell family, the Murphy family.
"Today," says Hamlin, "you look at the African-American community in Baltimore, we're all over the place. There's no centerpiece where we say, 'This is ours,' where you feel a unity and a sense of pride. There are real signs of life around here. The shells of houses that were going for $5,000 a few years ago, they're going for $75,000 now."
Hamlin has no illusions about rebuilding the Royal Theatre at its old location at Pennsylvania and Lafayette. The location's a ball field now, with a stately "Royal" marquee out front to remind people of its former life, and a Police Athletic League headquarters next to it. Hamlin says neighbors want to keep it that way. But he's looking at nearby locations for a new Royal Theatre, and says he's purchased land several blocks north on Pennsylvania Avenue for an office building that would house a banquet hall and commercial space.
"I grew up here," Hamlin says, "when you saw doctors and lawyers and teachers in the neighborhood. There were lots of professional people you could look up to and emulate. You learned a work ethic. I worked at a grocery store after school and on Saturdays. I could buy my own tennis shoes. I learned to clean fish, cut up chickens, all kinds of things.
"Our young people don't have those kinds of opportunities now, not in this neighborhood. The businesses aren't there the way they were. But people are moving back into the city. I'm looking for a place myself. And businesses are moving back. The Royal Theatre could be a centerpiece in West Baltimore."
He remembers seeing Little Stevie Wonder there, and the Four Tops and the Temptations, too. It was a long time ago. But, from all the way out there in Sykesville, Hamlin can see a new generation arriving on Pennsylvania Avenue. He's a great visionary, or a sentimental dreamer. Or both.
Baltimore Business Journal, From the August 29, 2005 print edition
A renaissance on the Avenue
A plan to revive Pennsylvania Avenue could bring business back to a blighted neighborhood.
A half century ago, Pennsylvania Avenue's Royal Theatre was one of six stops along the "Chitlin Circuit," the network of clubs that musicians such as Louie Armstrong, Cab Calloway and Nat King Cole performed at regularly. Now, "the Avenue," as it is referred to by loyalists, is business-barren and riddled with crime. No dry cleaners. No shoe repair shops. Just one bank. And all that remains of the Royal Theatre, which was torn down in 1971 to make way for a neighborhood ballfield, is a monument at the corner of Pennsylvania and Lafayette Avenues.
"There's no economic opportunity there now," Hamlin said. "Nothing." But Hamlin and his business partner, George Gilliam, insist that "today is a new day" on the Avenue. That's because they are leading a group of entrepreneurs and community activists that has a plan to bring the swagger back to Pennsylvania Avenue.
More specifically, the Pennsylvania Avenue Redevelopment Collaborative has rounded up the support of city lawmakers and development officials to build a new Royal Theatre, construct an office building, improve the streetscape, renovate existing businesses and lure new ones to set up shop along the Avenue between Martin Luther King Boulevard and Fulton Avenue.
Gilliam, the group's executive director, and Hamlin, its economic development chief, talk of using public and private money to bring national retailers such as Old Navy and Quizno's to the Avenue. They plan to piggyback on the growth of Baltimore's tourism business by marketing the Avenue's history as a cultural hot spot. And they hope to attract residents from such nearby neighborhoods as Heritage Crossing to the south and Bolton Hill to the east to one day shop along the Avenue.
Perhaps most important, Hamlin and Gilliam are willing to plunk down their own money to convince city leaders, developers and retailers to invest in the redevelopment of this run-down neighborhood.
Pennsylvania Avenue Was Once the Center of Black Life and Culture in Baltimore. Can It Be Again?
By Christina Royster-Hemby
It's been 34 years since the demolition of the Royal Theater , signaling the end of the entertainment district along Pennsylvania Avenue, but 90-year-old Northwest Baltimore resident Clarence Brown still takes an occasional trip down memory lane to remember the Avenue during its heyday. Health reasons prevent him from actually making the drive a few miles south to the street itself on a cold winter day, but sitting at his dining room table, dressed comfortably in a striped T-shirt and gray sweatpants, he's only too happy to take a mental trip back to the days when he might find himself standing on the Avenue on a warm sunny day wearing a stylish three-piece suit. In fact, he says, you wouldn't be caught dead there wearing anything but your finest and sharpest.
"Yeah, the Avenue was the spot", Brown beams with pride. "I can name every store, club, and every bar all the way up [the street]." Brown describes Pennsylvania Avenue from what was called "the bottom," near where he lived on Hoffman Street, up to North Avenue, stopping at places like the Club Casino, Ike Dixon's Comedy Club, Gamby's, and the Sphinx Club. Brown recalls he mingled with a stream of ordinary people" from laborers to doctors and teachers" all dressed to the nines in hats, dresses, gloves, furs, suits, and zoot suits. Like Brown, they were often heading to the Royal or Regent theaters, or one of the innumerable bars and nightclubs lining Penn Ave. And at the Royal Theater, for example, patrons could pay 50 to 75 cents ($1 for the midnight show) to see the likes of Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and Dinah Washington at the nearly 1,400-seat luxury theater, and then catch a glimpse of the same stars later at famed hot spots like the Avenue Bar or the Alhambra Grill.
I knew everybody, you name them "Redd Foxx and Slappy White, Pearl Bailey," Brown says. "Dinah Washington used to stay at my house when she was in town."
Like many African-Americans who lived in Baltimore during the mid-20th century, Brown likes to remember Pennsylvania Avenue as a mecca of black entertainment. But there are other, more painful memories that come out more hesitantly.
Dinah Washington stayed with him, Brown says, because she couldn't just go downtown and get one of those hotels down there. No, if you were black you had to stay at someone's house on the Avenue if the hotels that served Negroes "the Penn or the York were booked."
The excitement on Brown's face wanes. "It was the only place the Negro could go," he says.
Brown was born in 1915 and lived no more than four blocks from Pennsylvania Avenue until the late 1960s. And for most of that time, he says, the Avenue itself, the YMCA on Druid Hill Avenue, and a few segregated areas of Druid Hill Park were the only places where blacks could go in Old West Baltimore, the neighborhood now known as Upton.
Brown's change in mood bears witness to the mixed opinions and feelings that many African-Americans in Baltimore still have about Pennsylvania Avenue. While the Avenue may have been the place to be back in the day, it prospered because it existed amid the segregation of Jim Crow-era America. Blacks couldn't go to the Hippodrome or to Baltimore Street for entertainment, and the theaters blacks could and did attend, such as the Royal, were often owned by whites. Yet, within this harsh, segregated world, Pennsylvania Avenue also served as a bittersweet point of pride "the only place in town one might see Hollywood-worthy black names on a marquee.
Today, Pennsylvania Avenue bears few obvious signs of ever having seen good times. Many of the historic buildings have been torn down; the Shake n Bake Recreation Center now stands where the Regent used to be. While the Avenue Market is still open and the 1600 block boasts a big retail store in Foot Locker, the shopping options are limited. The people strolling Pennsylvania Avenue these days may be dressed in their best clothes, but it's hard to see much excitement in their demeanors.
In 2000, Mayor Martin O'Malley established the Pennsylvanian Avenue Redevelopment Collaborative (PARC) as part of his newly instituted Main Streets program. Since that time, $720,000 of city money has been budgeted for the program, and $400,000 has already been spent, PARC executive director George Gilliam says. A monument to the Royal has been built where the theater once stood, a Billie Holiday statue has been erected, among other street-beautification projects, and some new housing is going up in the neighborhood.
There is even more development expected for Pennsylvania Avenue as part of city's master plan to revive the Upton neighborhood. Most observers and residents welcome revitalization, but the efforts are also stirring up conflicting memories and thoughts, and even some doubts.
While for many the image of long-ago Pennsylvania Avenue is one of black entertainers and their patrons living the high life along its storied blocks, the history of the Avenue is more complicated and contradictory than that. As Baltimoreans ponder the task and consequences of revitalizing the Avenue in a 21st century that is racially, economically, and socially so different from its heyday, the history of Pennsylvania Avenue offers as many questions about its future as answers.
Even during the days of slavery, Maryland boasted an unusually high number of free blacks, most especially in Baltimore. According to Barbara Mills 2002 book Got My Mind Set on Freedom: Maryland's Story on Black and White Activism, 1663-2000, there were 323 free blacks in Baltimore in 1790 and 1,255 slaves; in 1860 there were 25,680 free blacks and 2,218 slaves. Nonetheless, there was no single predominantly African-American residential area in the city before the late 19th century; as noted in The Baltimore Book (1991): In 1880, blacks were widely distributed throughout Baltimore City. Although African-Americans constituted 10 percent or more of the total population in three-fourths of the city's 20 wards, no single ward was more than one-third black.
Baltimore's African-Americans began moving west of the fledgling downtown around 1885 to get away from overcrowding, poor sanitation, and polluted wells. By the end of the 19th century, the black population boomed due to migration from the South and rural areas of Maryland and other surrounding states. (U.S. Census data reveals that in 1910 84,749 blacks were living in Baltimore, making up more than 15 percent of the city's population.)
This is when a segregated African-American community called Old West Baltimore emerged in an area bounded by North Avenue to the north, Franklin Street to the south, and Madison and Fulton streets to the east and west, respectively, with Pennsylvania running through its heart away from the center city to the northwest. By 1904, about half of the city's African-American population lived in Old West Baltimore a neighborhood that encompassed what The Baltimore Book describes as the most prominent of Baltimore' black citizens, a substantial group of modest renters, and the poorest of the city's working class.
But African-Americans weren't the first residents of Pennsylvania Avenue. Other ethnic groups populated the avenue before blacks did, says Alvin K. Brunson, director of exhibits and programs for the Center for Cultural Education, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educational and cultural enrichment located at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Wilson Street. He says that before African-Americans moved in Pennsylvania Avenue was populated by Jews, Italians, Germans, and other European immigrants, both as residents and business owners.
"It was definitely a retail district before African-Americans moved in," Brunson says. The neighborhood was largely Jewish and Pennsylvania Avenue was lined with businesses where goods and services could be bought and sold," he adds. "And the Lafayette Market opened in 1871 and was driving much of this retail business."
Of course, the history of the Avenue "and its black population"goes back further than that.
"Pennsylvania Avenue officially appears on Baltimore maps back in 1818," Brunson says, first called the Wagon Road in the 18th century, then Hookstown Road, then Pennsylvania Road, as merchants and others traveled and traded up and down the thoroughfare between Baltimore and Southern Pennsylvania throughout the 1700s and 1800s. (The street, officially named Pennsylvania Avenue in 1818, still leads to its namesake state, via Reisterstown Road.) Some remnants of these early European residents remain there today: Brunson references the Etting Cemetary, at Pennsylvania and North avenues. It's the oldest Jewish cemetery in Baltimore and dates from 1799, with the last burial taking place in 1881.
Meanwhile, Brunson says, 1799 also marked the arrival of the first group of black slaves from Haiti, who settled near the first block of Pennsylvania Avenue at Franklin Street, Brunson believes, to help build the St. Mary's Seminary as slave labor. (St. Mary's Seminary was located at 600 N. Paca St. before moving to Roland Avenue, where it resides today.) Soon after the Civil War ended in 1865, many ex-slaves and blacks who gained their freedom before the Civil War moved to Baltimore. As the black population of the Pennsylvania Avenue area increased, so did the number of churches (such as Union Baptist, Bethel A.M.E., and Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist), schools, hotels, and other businesses catering to blacks, which in turn also drew more residents and visitors. There were also a number of theaters, most owned by whites. "Theater owners saw the influx of blacks into this area as a means by which to make money," Brunson says.
In fact, while African-Americans increasingly dominated almost all aspects of everyday life on Pennsylvania Avenue as the 20th century dawned, they did not dominate its commerce. Although there were always what Brunson categorizes as "a handful" of black-owned businesses on the Avenue "including the Smith Punch Base Coffee and Tea Co., which moved into the 1400 block in 1908, and the Cortez Peters Business School, which opened in the 1200 block in 1935 "from the 1920s to the 1950s, the businesses were predominantly owned by Jews," he says. More black-owned businesses sprouted on the Avenue in the '60s, Brunson says, but adds that "sometimes people paint a picture of Pennsylvania Avenue as a haven for black businesses, and that's not true."
"I get tired of people talking about the Harlem Renaissance, because Baltimore had had a renaissance, too," says Philip J. Merrill. "And so did other cities with large black communities"Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, all of these communities had a renaissance."
Merrill should know. A collector, historian, author, and appraiser for PBS's Antiques Roadshow, the 42-year-old Baltimorean specializes in African-American history, specifically the physical relics of black culture. Through his firm, Nanny Jack and Co., Merrill consults on exhibits, tours, and seminars, brokers black memorabilia, rents artifacts to film companies, and provides stock photography rentals and research. And, though his work encompasses African-American history as a whole, he has a special interest in his hometown.
"You had writers, artists, and politicians, you had a whole movement that emerged from people living in this area during this time," Merrill says. "People don't understand that Pennsylvania Avenue was more than a mecca for entertainment, it was a mecca for black people."
Merrill has brought some artifacts to a Catonsville church to make his case for a reporter; what ensues is a dizzying history lesson. Wearing white plastic gloves to handle delicate materials, he carefully points to the pieces of history he has found everywhere from eBay to people's discarded trash: pictures and literature that offer proof of thriving black businesses, social clubs, and artists working along Pennsylvania Avenue.
Merrill pulls out a series of early 20th-century photographs taken by Arthur L. Macbeth, including a sepia-tone portrait of a well-dressed black mother in her prime and her equally well-appointed child, both gazing into the lens with evident pride. In a photograph of Macbeth himself, included in an advertisement, he is very fair skinned and bears an uncanny resemblance to Theodore Roosevelt. Merrill notes the photographer's slogan with a chuckle: "If you have beauty, we take it. If you have none, we make it." From 1910 until the late '30s, Macbeth's studio was located on Pennsylvania Avenue.
"We had our own James VanDerZee in town who was barely recognized" Merrill says, referencing the famous Harlem Renaissance photographer. "Why do we have to go to Harlem to see images of refined blacks when we've got them right here?"
There were so many African-American Baltimoreans thriving on and around Pennsylvania Avenue during the early and mid-20th century that all you had to do for a list was, well, pick up a directory. That's exactly what Merrill does, pulling out The First Colored Professional, Clerical and Business Directory of Baltimore City, a small, weathered blue booklet printed with block letters, first published in 1913 by an African-American man named Robert Coleman. Coleman continued to publish directories annually until his death in 1946. Although the directories were published years before Merrill was born, they are clearly his babies; he allows a reporter to leaf through a laminated ninth edition, published in 1921 and featuring a portrait of Coleman inside, but the 1913 first edition is off limits. " too fragile," he says.
It is easy to understand why Merrill is so zealous about these modest booklets. They provide a front-row seat to the lives that ordinary residents of the Pennsylvania Avenue area lived back then. About 60 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the 1921-22 edition of Coleman's directory lists 21 black dentists, nine of whose practices were on Pennsylvania. The name of African-American attorney George W.F. McMechen leaps from one page; as the former Morgan College's first graduate in 1895, McMechen now has a building at Morgan State University named in his honor. The directory also includes listings for two mine operators, 12 notaries public, seven nurses, 44 physicians, and 28 organizations, including the Arch Social Club (then located at 1106 McCulloh St.), the Colored High School Alumni Association, the Du Bois Circle (named for W.E.B. Du Bois), the Inter-Racial Conference, the Maryland Association for the Colored Blind, the Maryland Colored Public Health Association, the NAACP, and the Marcus Garvey-led black nationalist group the Universal Negro Improvement Association, which once had an office at 1917 Pennsylvania Ave.
"Marcus Garvey came to Baltimore on many occasions" Merrill says excitedly. "He even got married to his second wife here. But you never even hear that Baltimore had a [UNIA] chapter, much less that it met on Pennsylvania Avenue.
"It's great when people talk about the Avenue as it relates to the Royal Theater," he sums up. "But the avenue was so much more than the Royal. Pennsylvania Avenue could not have survived without the stability of the other surrounding streets"your homeowners, renters, other successful people living in these other blocks."
Still, most people remember the Avenue fondly for entertainment venues like the Royal. "Tiny" Tim Harris counts the Royal among his fondest memories.
Harris says he has been singing since 1945, four years after he was born in North Carolina, and started making records while still in high school in Baltimore. Sitting down for an afternoon chat inside the upper story of the red-lit confines of Maceo's Bar on Monroe Street, where he sings each Wednesday night, Harris' slight stature obviously inspired his nickname; in fact, he bears an uncanny resemblance to fellow songster Sammy Davis Jr.
Harris remembers patronizing the Avenue as early as age 11, going to dances at the New Albert hall. Recalling his growth from boy to man, from young patron to veteran performer, he echoes common sentiments about Pennsylvania Avenue being a bastion of excitement. "It felt just like it did when I visited 125th Street," he says, referring to Harlem's famous main drag, home of the Apollo Theatre, the pinnacle stop on the so-called "chitlin circuit" of black clubs and theaters that included the Royal and other Pennsylvania Avenue venues. "Every major city had a black mecca," Harris says, and the Royal was Baltimore's.
Harris spent a good part of the '60s and'70s singing on the Avenue at the Club Casino (1513-19 Pennsylvania Ave.), the Bamboo Lounge (1426 Pennsylvania Ave.), and the Millionaire Club (1029 Pennsylvania Ave.), among other clubs.
"If you were a star on the chitlin' circuit, you were a star, period," he says. "It didn't make any difference if you weren't recognized by whites or anyone else. As long as you could be recognized by your own people, that's all you needed."
But by the early '70s, singers such as Harris could perform all over town, though many of bars and nightclubs that once hosted live music had replaced bands and singers with jukeboxes. The mighty Royal stopped hosting live music in 1965 and tried a second life as a movie theater before being torn down in 1971. "The entertainment piece was a big piece," the Center for Cultural Education's Alvin Brunson says. "I'm sure that was a factor in the Avenue's decline."
That decline was already in full swing by the time the Royal shut its doors for good. Vice had always been a part of life on Pennsylvania Avenue: One of Philip Merrill's prize pieces is the diary of a woman who frequented the Avenue between 1925 and 1950 and left behind an account peppered with mentions of illicit "juice joints," numbers running, and back-alley abortions. By 1967, when an Evening Sun article weighed in on the Avenue's woes, many of the stores and homes in the area were vacant or in disrepair, there was mounting evidence of narcotics traffic, and "undercover agents were working around the clock" in the neighborhood.
One of the ironies of the Pennsylvania Avenue saga is that, in providing the kind of community base that fueled and supported the local civil-rights movement, the end of official segregation ended the Avenue's monopoly on entertainment, housing, and shopping for African-Americans. Harris says he was never a fan of segregation and acknowledges that desegregation brought with it improved educational opportunities, but he notes that segregation was not without its benefits for the city's insular black community.
"It was a separate world," he says of segregated Pennsylvania Avenue. "We had ours and they had theirs, and it was better that way."He gets so riled up by this thought that he starts to pace. "We had more money in our neighborhoods," he says. Aiming a gesture of exasperation toward a window a few feet away" and the streets outside" he adds, "And our neighborhoods werent run-down like this, either"
Eighty-year-old West Baltimore resident James "Biddy" Wood was a journalist for the Afro-American newspaper in 1949, and his beat was Pennsylvania Avenue. Biddy last wrote about the Avenue in a 1992 article for a program for Associated Black Charities, wherein he referred to life on the Avenue during the 1930s, '40s, and '50s as "good years," illuminated by lights that"shone like "Jewels in the Inner City."In the same story, Wood called the Royal Theater "a citadel for the finest Black entertainer, who could not showcase their exceptional talents elsewhere in Jim Crow America." But now, a few years later and a few years older, Wood uses different words.
"Heyday for whom?" he asks.
"Look up the world "˜heyday" he demands. A quick click on Dictionary.com brings up the following definition: "The period of greatest popularity, success, or power; prime."
"That definition would imply that the Avenue was cause for celebration," Wood says. "The majority of businesses on Pennsylvania Avenue were owned by whites."
There is no better example of the ironies of white ownership on Pennsylvania Avenue than the Royal Theater itself. As the Center for Cultural Education's Brunson relates, it was originally black-owned and -operated, opened by a group of local black businessmen in 1921 as the Douglass Theater. The original owners did what they could to make a go of it, even offering shares of stock to community members for $5 a share, but the business failed. In 1926, it was bought by a Jewish-German family, the Bennethums, who refurbished it, renamed it the Royal, and reopened. It was soon the toast of the Avenue. (A.L. Lichtman bought the theater in 1927.)
"The Douglass Theatre did not get the support that it needed to stay in business," Brunson says. "The white owners of the Royal had a larger resource pool to attract more quality entertainment."
"The only two black-owned theaters [in Baltimore] that I knew of were the Dunbar, owned by the Carr family, and the Biddle, owned by the Lee family, which were in East Baltimore," Wood adds. "Not on Pennsylvania Avenue."
And while the Royal employed blacks, other Avenue businesses that profited primarily from the dollars of African-Americans refused to hire black employees.
Wood mentions "Don't Buy Where You Can'™t Work," a 1933 campaign organized by a black youth group called the City-Wide Young People's Forum, for which African-Americans were asked to boycott white-owned stores on the Avenue until those businesses hired more African-Americans. Protesters and store owners traded legal salvos in local courts, but many Avenue businessmen eventually acquiesced to the group's demands because they were losing too much money.
Still, other establishments on Pennsylvania Avenue practiced further segregation, not only refusing to employ blacks but refusing to serve them as well.
Herman Katkow, 86, who bought the Beverly Shop women's clothing store on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1952, says he served black customers and employed black clerks. But he says one of his white peers, Joe Eisenberg, the owner of Eisenberg's Delicatessen in the 1800 block of Pennsylvania, would not. "In his narrow thinking," Katkow says, "he thought that if he started serving blacks the whites wouldn't come "particularly the white employees of nearby Maryland National Bank, who often stopped by the deli for lunch.
But Katkow had heard that the black community was going to picket Eisenberg's. "I told Joe that he had to start serving everybody," he says. "And if you don't open up your restaurant, I'm going to be in the picket line." Eisenberg eventually started to serve to blacks; Katkow went on to work with organizations like Black/Jewish Forum of Baltimore.
Such stories make it tough for Biddy Wood to look back fondly on Pennsylvania Avenue's ostensible Golden Age: "I'm not so sure it's an occasion to celebrate back when Jim Crow was bossing folks all over America, insisting they would remain second-class citizens and building these types of [segregated] institutions to make sure they didn't go elsewhere." In fact, Wood contends, the segregation-defined, largely white-owned Avenue could be seen as another form of control "in creating it, he theorizes, the powers-that-be were trying to kill the desire to visit habitats of choice"
Regardless of his feelings about the challenges of life for blacks on the Avenue back then, Wood notes that the struggle for equality historically has not, and cannot, go forward including only one ethnic group. "Nothing is accomplished without support," he says, citing nonblack pioneers in the struggle for civil rights such as Arthur Spingarn, who was instrumental in founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "The progress we have made did not come through us alone."
Likewise, Wood says he has no interest in re-creating the old Pennsylvania Avenue, even on 21st-century terms. "I don't want anything to be all-black, because America is not all-black," he says. "We've got to find a way to live together if we can in this multiracial society."
When told of Biddy Wood's low opinion of Pennsylvania Avenue's ostensible glory days, "Tiny" Tim Harris quickly quips, "That's because Biddy Wood lived a privileged life. He was a journalist and an entertainment manger, and his father was the superintendent of schools. Pennsylvania Avenue meant something entirely different to the common man."
Yet Harris agrees with his old friend Wood about the notion of reviving the Pennsylvania Avenue of old. "I wouldn't want to bring it back," he says. "I'm a realist. And you can't go backwards. What we have to do is find a way to go forward."