City officials tout Pennsylvania Avenue arts district

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Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young presents a citation to Brion Gill, executive director of the Pennsylvania Avenue Arts and Entertainment District. Photo via Mayor Young’s Twitter.

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young wants to bring more jazz to the city.

“It oftentimes bothers me that we don’t have the jazz that we should have in Baltimore,” he said, “that our citizens have to travel to Washington D.C. because they stay open late.”

He then addressed the crowd of community members gathered at the Avenue Bakery in Druid Heights and offered them this piece of advice: “We’re gonna have to start staying open a little late to keep our own folk here, and to attract people from outside Baltimore to come here to enjoy our entertainment here.”

With the new state designation making the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor an arts and entertainment district, Young and other officials envision this famous street returning to its past glory as a hub for black artists, serving as a home to new music venues, artist galleries and restaurants.

James Hamlin, the bakery’s proprietor, said he had a similar vision when he opened his business in 2011 with the hope of rebuilding the famed Royal Theater, once the site of performances by greats such as Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald.

“The Royal Theater was the only venue made famous by the Chitlin’ Circuit to have been unceremoniously torn down decades ago,” he said. “It is this project that will ignite the economic revitalization to allow West Baltimore to take advantage of the third largest industry in Baltimore City–a $5.7 billion industry, and that is tourism.”

Marion Blackwell, of Historic Pennsylvania Avenue Main Street, said the arts district will be a supporting partner in her group’s efforts to bring more businesses to the area, a restoration project she said she’s worked on for four decades.

“This is a community that has seen a lot of hardship,” she said. “In its heyday, it was the place. We are now approaching that place again.”

Pennsylvania Avenue joins Highlandtown, Station North and the area around the Bromo Seltzer Tower as the city’s only dedicated arts and entertainment districts. Those places receive state tax credits and other incentives to encourage development projects for the arts.

Brion Gill, aka the spoken word artist and activist Lady Brion, who helped steer a coalition that sought state designation for Pennsylvania Avenue, will serve as executive director of the new arts district. She said her main objectives are to market the creative people living there, put on programming showcasing their work and to beautify areas within the district.

The district will hold focus groups with black artists to learn about their needs, Gill said, and an awards banquet at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum on Oct. 18 to honor the avenue’s cultural importance.

She stressed that this is not an effort to push residents out, noting that a number of community groups joined together on the effort and led listening session and workshops to see what neighbors wanted. More than 5,000 signatures were collected in support of the designation.

“This is not the work of outside forces seeking to gentrify and redevelop Baltimore, as we have seen across the city,” she said. “In fact, this initiative seeks to help black ownership and autonomy at all levels–residential, commercial and institutional.”

Previously, Gill told Baltimore Fishbowl the organization was exploring a Cab Calloway museum and projects to honor black women’s history or Negro League baseball, she said.

A house in nearby Druid Heights where Calloway lived for several years has recently been the topic of a debate on maintaining cultural heritage. The decaying structure is slated to be demolished to make way for a neighborhood park, but some–including Calloway’s grandson–have argued it should be preserved as an attraction.

Seventh District Councilman Leon Pinkett, who represents part of the Pennsylvania Avenue corridors, said today’s announcement shows it’s possible “to do two things at once.”

“We can reach back and hold onto our great legacy, but with our other hand we can reach for a brighter future.”

Brandon Weigel


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