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Spring Heartbreak

Something's gone wrong in this neighborhood that was the cradle of jazz music.

Kate Drabinski

March 26, 2014

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It was raining, but fuck it, it was my spring break, and I was going to get some spring-breaking in, weather be damned. I decided to bike down from Charles Village and over to Pennsylvania Avenue to check out its Star-Spangled Heritage Trail, brought to you by the National Park Service. Mount Vernon and Fells Point also boast these trails, marked by signs regaling us with Baltimore's glory days of shipbuilding and flag-sewing and trolley-riding. These signs are so much background noise, usually, as I'm just trying to get through Fells Point without getting my tire locked up in cobblestones or to avoid getting hit by the circulator as I pedal down Saint Paul Street. Pennsylvania Avenue is a different story, if only because I don't usually head that way, except to get somewhere else. The nearly empty streets suggested I'm not the only one who doesn't find herself there all that often.

The trip to Pennsylvania Avenue is its own education on the history of Baltimore. The Jones Falls Expressway has cut West Baltimore off from the central part of the city, so getting there is quite a trick. I don't have enough of a death wish to ride down North Avenue and just take a left on Pennsylvania, so I took the long way-down Maryland Avenue, a left on Oliver, and up to MICA. That neighborhood is crawling with campus-security vans and cameras and other signs that indicate even though these are public streets, not everyone belongs on them. I thought about calling it a soggy day and just stopping for pizza and afternoon beers-that's a spring break too, right?-but I just wiped off my glasses and took a left on Lafayette, past the brick houses and yoga pants-wearing dog-walkers. Things started changing a few blocks west, in Marble Hill. The buildings are still brick, but they're boarded up, or their backs have fallen off. I was only a few blocks away from MICA's bubble, but it was like I was in a whole different Baltimore.

I saw the first historical marker-I made it!-and locked my bike up to a No Parking sign so I could walk my walking tour. I was welcomed to the neighborhood, encouraged to "enjoy the sights [and] sounds of an emerging people." That seemed kinda awkward-African Americans have been in Baltimore since before there was Baltimore, so not really "emerging." Also, do people "emerge"? This is spring break, I told myself. Put away the cynicism that maybe this tour isn't here to help us feel more rooted in our neighborhoods, our connection to each other, our past, present, or future, and is more about selling something to tourists, since that's the only way we seem able to make money anymore, now that we're not cranking out bombs and ships for war since wars are fought with less "stuff" now and besides, let's just outsource everything to places where workers are even more disposable than they are here. C'mon, self, just learn.

OK, fine. I was standing on the former location of the Royal Theatre, though it didn't look all that royal, what with the pile of brick behind it, the bent park benches, and a very new marquee that reads: "Baltimore Teens Need Foster Parents 410-685-8231." Off to a great start. The sign told me that this theater was the Jewel of the Avenue, playing host to greats like Nat King Cole, Count Basie, Eubie Blake, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong. The talents of other artists were nurtured here: Billie Holiday-who is memorialized with a statue of her own across the street-Cab Calloway, and Elmer Snowden all called this neighborhood home at one point. The street was black Baltimore's "downtown," bustling with business, culture, and a deeply vibrant and essential political life that challenged the very conditions of its own segregation.

I stood on the corner reading and seeing pictures of the street in ye olden days, and I couldn't help but wonder where the theater went, and why. Why isn't there still a theater here, hosting today's greats? The plaza is lovely, paved with tiles featuring likenesses of important figures in African-American history and culture, from Malcolm to Tupac, but wouldn't we rather have a vibrant cultural institution than a reminder of what was?

Something's gone wrong in this neighborhood that was the cradle of jazz music; the site of the Mutual United Brotherhood of Liberty, one of the earliest civil rights organizations in the country; the home of Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson, who organized the NAACP's Baltimore branch; the home of Dr. Garnett Russell Waller, one of the 29 founders of the Niagara Movement; the site of pitched battles over segregation in one of the world's most segregated cities, fought by lawyer George McMechen, who was one of the first black residents of the neighborhood when he moved to 1834 McCulloch St. in 1910; home to writers and artists like Amelia Johnson and Zora Neale Hurston, and Romare Beardon, whose mural in the Upton subway station is a hidden gem; and home to innumerable churches, financial institutions, and political activists and organizations to whom we are all in debt for the lives all of us are living now in this city.

The walking tour led me by all those historical landmarks, though I had to Googleymap Jackson's house to make sure I took my selfie on the right stoop. But I also passed a makeshift memorial to a young person who lost her life on Pennsylvania Avenue and McMechen Street; the now city-owned former orphanage, the sadly named Home of the Friendless, that took in abandoned children for over 60 years and now smells of wet decrepitude that I smelled from half a block away-literally; vacant homes boarded up or with broken windows, long-abandoned curtains waving in the wet almost-spring wind; and other signs of what happens when you combine deindustrialization, urban renewal (which James Baldwin rightly called "Negro removal"), white flight, and good old-fashioned racism. The walking tour doesn't explain how we got from that history to our present one, but the disconnect from the heyday featured on the signs and conditions I saw around me left me with the suspicion that it wasn't an accident. And then I ducked out of the rain for a slice and a beer.