Friday, September 4, 2015

Penn and North. Then and Now - The Arch Social Club

A city street lined with shops and businesses, some trees, parking on both sides, a bus line on it and a subway under it, sidewalks teaming with people, in short, a lively scene close to what people call a "complete street" or what Jane Jacobs liked about cities and what we see in several of the commercial hubs in Baltimore neighborhoods. An area like this should be a designated "Maryland Main Street" and it is.
Kaleb Tshamba, chairman of the club's board of trustees explains
 the history of the club on display in its front lobby (photo: ArchPlan)

In short, the scene at Penn and North is a world apart from what people conjure up as images of the ghetto, a world apart from CNN and the burning CVS with a phalanx of armed police on one side and demonstrators hurling objects on the other. Yet, the CVS, now being demolished is right there, so are recent murders, drug dealing, a subway entry, a library and, maybe most characteristic, the Arch Social Club, the second oldest African American social club in the entire country.
The Arch Social Club was casually founded in 1905 and officially incorporated on March 15, 1912. The club is very much a child of Baltimore’s brutally repressive racial environment. Black people at the dawn of the 20th century were savagely pushed to the political, social, cultural and economic margins by a combination of white folkways and state statutes. Out of necessity, African Americans sought collective survival in the construction of a parallel civil society. Schools, churches, benevolent associations, commercial enterprises, cultural venues and every conceivable social institution that addressed the exclusionary nature of the broader white society and day-to-day needs of Black folk were forged–often in the face of de jure race-driven harassment and humiliation. (Arch, website)
Ribbon cutting after renovations in 2014
It may be telling that the founder Raymond Coates shares a  last name (no relation) with Baltimore's currently best known African American voice, Ta Nahesi Coates. Kaleb Tshamba, chairman of the club's board of trustees proudly shows the history of the club on display in its front lobby. Whatever images may pop up with the name "gentlemen's club", this is not what the Arch is. Here the word "social" is meant literary, for company but also for social engagement. Today, for example the 300 men March group has support and a base here and the African American political power base can found here frequently.

The night when I visited, was no exception. Councilman Nick Mosby was there, Senator Catherine Pugh and the leaders of the surrounding communities, such as Druid Heights Community Development CEO Roscoe Johnson. With today mostly women being the activists, this was certainly not only gentlemen who gathered here to celebrate the design phase of the North Avenue streetscape improvements, a project lead by NDC's Lauta Wheaton. There was a DJ, food and soft drinks, the design plans themselves flickered across a TV screen, there were brief speeches but the occasion wasn't work but celebration.
Renovated facade (Baltimore Heritage)

That, precisely, seem to have been the history of this club, to take life from the bright side as much as possible. Early on, forced into the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor as the only place where blacks could own and operate a business, doctors, lawyers and other influential folks founded the Arch Club and then gathered there after work. In a somewhat ironic twist of segregation, Pennsylvania Avenue was much more vibrant back then than it is today, when large stretches of The Avenue are dilapidated and abandoned. In a even more ironic twist, segregation has not subsided, in many parts of Baltimore it may be even more accentuated. But the Avenue of refuge is diminished to just a place of refuge,: The Arch Social Club.

Among the boarded up buildings a few blocks to the south-east is the Sphinx Club, which after a fire in the late nineteen-nineties, remains a boarded ruin the Druid Heights CDC is trying to bring back. A planned new building was initially envisioned as a Negro League Baseball museum. The buildings are slated for stabilization work to begin this fall, ArchPlan is the architect.
Senator Pugh  and Councilman Nick Mosby discuss streetscape plans
with residents and community 
leaders  (photo ArchPlan)

Back at the streetscape celebration, Bluewater Baltimore announced that they had secured a $300,000 grant for 180 trees to be planted on West North Avenue. One would hope that the streetscape work can get funded in time to be constructed before the trees get planted and not the other way round.

Catherine Pugh, sitting in the back of the room shares that she is preparing to announce her run for Mayor next week. North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue are in her current senate district, she knows the area well enough. It will take heavy lifting to extend
Roscoe Johnson expresses hope to soon see actual work be done on North
Avenue (photo:ArchPlan)
the hustle and bustle at Penn and North to more hours of the day, to all around legality and further down the once flourishing "Avenue". The rebuilding on the former CVS lot and the renovated facade of the Arch Club are a good start.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The Afro about the club

Some images from the "Avenue's" past:

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