Monday, September 17, 2018

A black culture district on Pennsylvania Avenue?

Slowly the recognition emerges that a city with a nearly 64% black population cannot be turned around by the not even 30% white minority, nor should it be. White "saviors" coming in, often with the best of intentions, to revitalize the large neighborhoods in the vast disinvested neighborhoods that make up the so called black butterfly are no longer received with open arms. Artists often used to turn ailing communities around as progressive "urban pioneers"  are no exception.
Lady Brion at the Baltimore Women's March Jan 2018 (Elvert Barnes)

It seems like a natural thing that Baltimore would have an arts and entertainment district that is devoted to black culture,  especially considering that there are three such districts designated in the city. But none of those are focused on African American art and culture. According to Brion Gilla poet and African American art activist known as Lady Brion, Baltimore would truly be a leader if it did rectify this situation: According to her, there is not a single state-designated black A&E district in the entire country. Not all arts districts are state designated as in Maryland, but a quick search did not yield any specifically African American or black culture district, not even in New Orleans; truly astounding, if true. Maybe this issues takes some crowd sourcing.
Historically, Pennsylvania Avenue was a hub for premiere Black arts and entertainment. The great Royal Theatre (originally the Douglass Theatre) welcomed legends like Ethal Waters, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Etta James. Black owned enterprise thrived on Pennsylvania Avenue like the first Black-owed movie house, Metropolitan Theatre, and the oldest continuously running Black male-social club, Arch Social cub. 
The riots of 1968 after the death of MLK Jr. and the riots of 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray along with a history of disinvestment have negatively impacted Pennsylvania Avenue. Its rich history is unknown to most people today. But Cultural Curator Lady Brion and other local artists and organizers are working to revitalize Pennsylvania Avenue and establish a state recognized arts and entertainment district.(From the Petition)
Pnnsylvania Avenue: American Main Street (Photo: Philipsen)
Black art is making headway in mainstream museums and Grammy awards lately as a Baltimore Magazine tally shows in an article this month. Brion Gill has found her quest for an African American Arts district on Pennsylvania Avenue echoed in Baltimore Magazine, the Afro and the Real News network. Her online petition has garnered over 1,100 supporters but a formal application has not yet been submitted to the Maryland State Arts Council. Gill is working with the for profit group Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle  (LBS) to lay the groundwork for such an application which is planned to be submitted early in 2019.
LBS’ work is predicated on the fundamental belief that Black people are the solution to our own problems. So often we have been framed as a problem to be fixed by others, usually white people, which serve to further expand the idea of white supremacy. (website)
In a kick off event titled The Art of Activism: Building the Penn Avenue Black Arts District at Jubilee Art on the Avenue participants could listen to a panel discussion, live could and hip-hop performances or take part in workshops.
An intentional Black arts district could rebuild the social fabric torn apart by gentrification and develop an arts/cultural rites of passage for upcoming artists and business owners. The district could be a central point for work that is already happening in the city and further community engagement. A Black arts district could aggregate financial resources to provide affordable housing and offer support to the community organizations and local businesses.
However, even with the Black experience, Black people’s social, economic and political needs must be the core motivation. Otherwise, economic interests will immediately outweigh social progression if we are not accountable to community. It is not enough to be owned and led by Black people. The black arts district needs to be unapologetically for Black people.
(Nakia Brown, the Afro)
Remnants of the Royal Theater: Baker Hamlin
Lady Brion served on Baltimore City Mayor Pugh’s Safe Arts Task Force in 2017-2018 formed to  increase access to safe art spaces and activities in the Greater Baltimore area. Of the many recommendations submitted to the City of Baltimore, Lady Brion recommended that a Black Arts and Entertainment District designation be established along the Pennsylvania Avenue.

Gill emphasizes a broad approach which takes art and links it firmly with economic development and with existing organizations which are active in the corridor such as the Upton Planning Council, the Druid Heights Community Development Corporation, the Pennsylvania Avenue Main Street organization and Baltimore Public Markets. The partnership also include the University of Baltimore, Fight Blight Baltimore, The Arch Social Club, Jubilee Arts, the Avenue Bakery and its owner's initiative to revive The Royal Theatre and the recently renovated Shake and Bake. The area of the district would  include the northern portion Fulton Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue with approximately a block east and west respectively.

Programming events would be a large part of creating appeal, says Lady Brion in a conversation for this article. She mentions as an example the Cadillac Parade, part of a cherished tradition of having parades on the Avenue. The Cadillac parades dates back to the 1950s and was carried forth for about 20 years with attempts of revival in 1997, 2007, 2010 and 2011. (There may have been others).
“Some of the most important work being made right now—abstract and figurative—is by black Americans,” (Christopher Bedford, Director BMA)
Gill is careful to define art and entertainment broadly enough to include sports such as boxing in the Upton Boxing facility. The group promoting the formation of an African American A&E district enlisted also the help of the Neighborhood Design Center which organized  "Design Conversation" 92 about tactical urbanism employed for a better streetscape design on the Avenue.
Arch Social Club at Penn & North (Philipsen)

The presence of strong cultural forces and the observation that equity would demand a black A&E district alone won't make the creation of one a success. A quick comparison on how the other three districts "tick" makes unique challenges visible:

  • The Highlandtown A&E district thrived on the presence of the Cultural Alliance as an organized artistic anchor and has been buoyed by the influx of immigrants reducing vacant structures and adding economic heft. 
  • The Station North A&E district is organizationally propped up by the Central Baltimore Partnership with its strong anchor institutions working in tandem with well coordinated neighborhood associations. MICA, Hopkins, and the Deutsch Foundation stand out as having pushed this area forward.  
  • The Bromo district hasn't quite proven yet that it will work, but it has strong traditional art institutions such as the Hippdrome and the Everyman, has the support of the Downtown Partnership and is supported by an ongoing influx of downtown residents. 
The creation of the Bromo District was not beyond dispute and the idea of an African American District was around before the Bromo was created as this text from a student's analysis shows:
The concept of a third arts district, however, is not universally supported. Critics argue that two districts are sufficient and that this effort would dilute an already struggling arts market and distract much needed attention and resources from the existing arts districts. Dissenters also argue that, rather than designate the West Side as an arts district, there is a need to recognize the African-American arts scene in Baltimore. Pennsylvania Avenue, once home to a range of black arts and entertainment institutions, might be a better beneficiary of such a designation. (Examining the Establishment of an Arts District on Baltimore’s West Side)

The Martin Luther King Parade could go down Pennsylvania Avenue
(Photo: Philipsen)
A Pennsylvania Avenue corridor district would need to create stronger coordination of the various community CDCs and organizations working from a larger framework plan than their own individual neighborhood plans. The Upton area sees the most development interest, and has the most developed masterplan, but Upton is rather peripheral to the suggested A&E district or where it would likely have its center of gravity, probably somewhere between Triangle Park (Jubilee Arts) and Penn/North (Arch Social Club).

Well know institutions of  African American culture such as the Lewis Museum, the Eubie Blake Museum, and Blacks in Wax should ideally locate in the district where they could give each other support and synergy. Morgan University should have a branch teaching facility here, maybe in collaboration with Coppin University.
More than anything else, Lady Brion's aspirations indicate that she envisions the arts as an economic engine and a tool of social empowerment. In many ways, this is quite different from the original world famous SoHo (NYC) approach in which artists were pioneering bridge heads for some type of "colonization". Station North with its Deutsch funded Open Works makerspace and its two artist live-work units developed by Jubilee give a hint what a economically oriented approach could look like. The vision of the West Baltimore Innovation Village points into a similar direction, a possible partnership that has not yet been formed.

Baltimore's divisions and its segregation could be mitigated better if black culture would be better known and understood, especially by other cultures but also by African Americans themselves. The A&E district could be a great start for such a cultural exchange.

The Avenue Market on Pennsylvania Avenue (Photo: Philipsen)

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related articles elsewhere:

The Real News 7/3/0/18: What Would A Black Arts and Entertainment District Mean for Baltimore?

Afro 10/5/2016: We need an arts and entertainment district centered on the socioeconomic growth of Black people instead of solely utilizing their talents for entertainment.

Pennsylvania A&E District Petition 

The Color Line, Baltimore Magazine 9/18

Design Conversation #92; Pennsylvania Ave. Main Street:
Tactical urbanism to pave the way for Baltimore’s new Black Arts and Entertainment District

See also the latest article on my sister blog:

With so many vacant houses, why is there still a housing crisis?

No comments:

Post a Comment