Friday, June 7, 2019

Cab Calloway house - Why fighting its demolition makes sense

In the long brewing debate about how useful the State's project CORE (Creating Opportunities for Renewal and Enterprise) money really is when it is largely used for expediting the demolition of vacant Baltimore rowhouses, jazz legend Cab Calloway got tangled right in the middle.
The 2200 Block of Druid Hill Avenue in winter (Photo: Philipsen)

Young Cab, before he became the well known African American singer, songwriter, and bandleader had lived a while on Druid Hill Avenue in Druid Heights neighborhood, a fact recently brought to light by Marble Hill community gadfly and activist Marti Pitrelli, always looking out for the history of her community and the areas around. Upton, Marble Hill and Druid Heights are all adjacent to Sandtown and a state of disinvestment that makes the history one of the best assets those communities have.  Jazz and African American culture included. So far, preservation hasn't fared well. Of the once famous Royal Theater is only a small token canopy left and the Sphinx Social Club sits stabilized but unfunded for rehabilitation. Pennsylvania Avenue is a sad shadow of its past when segregation made it an African American refuge and cultural hub.
Work on demolition along Baker Street, part of the future park
(Photo: Philipsen)

McCulloh Street and Druid Hill Avenue are the two main streets defining Druid Heights. They are just a couple of blocks away from flourishing Bolton Hill. Lined from Martin Luther King Boulevard to North Avenue with stately three story houses they are testimony of a time when these streets were highly desirable locations. In fact, it was on McCulloh Street where black lawyer McMechen's purchase of a home set off the wave of restrictive covenants that made Baltimore infamous for racial profiling and discrimination in housing.
In response to the attempt by George W. F. McMechen to move into 1834 McCulloh Street in the early summer of 1910, Baltimore moved to establish a formal segregation ordinance which forbid black residents from moving to designated “white blocks” and white residents from moving to designated “colored blocks.” (Baltimore Heritage)
Baltimore's largest Community Development Corporation, DHCDC, is located on McCulloh Street and operates a buzzing community and daycare center there, offering a plethora of services. Its Executive Director, Anthony Pressley, is not happy about Pitrelli's last minute intervention in favor of saving Cab Calloway's home on 2216 Druid Hill Avenue. His community has long begged for the  abandoned houses to be taken down where they form entire blocks. The community has long advocated for a large open space on both sides of Division Street, one block over from Druid Hill Avenue. The idea of that large open space made it into the adopted city Green Network Plan as one of the largest suggested new green spaces created through demolition.
An already cleared part of the future park: Little in terms of focal points
or defined edges (Photo: Philipsen)

So City and DHCDC swapped vacant houses in the 2200 block of Druid Hill Avenue just south of North Avenue until DHCD owned all the ones on the uneven side and the City all the ones on the even side where the park would be. DHCDC received some project CORE money to stabilize their side (money for rehab is still elusive) and the City scraped money together to level their side. The idea was that the one day occupied side would face a beautiful park across the street and help keep it safe.

Then Pitrelli came along and unearthed the Cab Calloway story, hooked up with the musician's grandson, and began to get a lot of traction in the media, all the way to the nightly local TV news.  (Baltimore Sun, Baltimore Brew, Washington Post, Fox News and even in Spanish). Pitrelli is a bit a firebrand and uses terms such as "cultural genocide" to describe the possible demolition of the Calloway house.

What should happen? Could the houses in the entire block be saved? Should the Calloway house be preserved and become some type of museum? Should the block be leveled as planned and the park be named after Calloway with a few marble steps as a memory as the City suggests?
Lafayette Square, West Baltimore (Baltimore Heritage)

My motive and possible qualification to weigh in on this set of questions comes from my work as an architect with the DHCDC which goes back a decade or so and includes the rehabilitation, new construction of rowhouses on McCulloh, Druid Avenue and Baker Street as well as design for a Negro League Baseball Museum on Pennsylvania Avenue for which, so far, only stabilization work was done.

The stately and ornate three story houses on McCulloh and Druid Hill Ave were in just as terrible a shape as the ones in question. But reconstructed and restored with with historic tax credits they became homes for first time home-buyers and helped stabilize the appearnace of the two important streets which have only a few vacant houses left. 17 new constructed homes with front porches were also sold as starter homes on Baker Street and they went like hot-cakes. Another six are currently under construction. The use of historic tax credits requires a thorough investigation of the the history of the area and a demonstration that the preserved homes sit in an intact historic context.
Union Square

Long before the Cab Calloway discovery, I argued for the preservation of the 2200 block of Druid Hill on both sides of the street in the interest of urban design. Preserving both sides of a  tree lined streetscape that continues for many blocks just makes sense, espcially at the beginning, at the portal. Druid Hill Avenue and McCulloh both change direction at North Avenue creating a gateway situation, especially on the south-east bound direction (Druid Hill Avenue). A small pocket park was just recently dedicated there at the corner of Baker Street. Taking down the entire block would open up the view into the future park but also into the haggard fringe around the planned park without any clear focus.

And that is where the whole problem with the parks coming from demolition sets in. Instead of being conceived like the beautiful squares in historic West Baltimore (Lafayette Square, Harlem Park Franklin Square, Union Square and Perkins Square) which are framed by stately buildings and accentuated by churches and anchor buildings, open spaces from demolition are ragged, not framed and not the result of urban design, view corridors or a particular urban layout. Instead, they are spaces derived were it was easy to do because there is no development. The notion that the sheer presence of an open space will lift the values of the surrounding areas to the point that attracts investment is, if not naive, at least unproven.
Calloway house (Photo: Mark Reutter, Baltimore Brew)

Experts of open space design such as Projects for Public Spaces in New York have tons of resources that tell anyone who pays attention that the key of a successful park is active use around the park and a desirable location. A single vacant lot may easily be converted into a community garden, but a site of several acres needs a lot of upkeep and must to be framed by as many active uses as possible to not become an attractive nuisance. There is little chance that the planned Cab Calloway Park can live up to its famous historic brethren, the historic squares. Instead, it is much more likely that such a large open space will become a liability.  The cost for its construction and maintenance can quickly exceed that of fixing up a few vacant houses.

What Druid Heights, a community full of vacant lots and green spaces, needs more than anything is people who can live under decent conditions in the community and who bring more eyes to the street and replenish a community which has been bleeding for decades.  Project CORE funds should emphasize decent housing, additional residents, healthy housing. It should also cherish and leverage history. This can't be done through more demolition.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related on Community Architect: What it Takes to Rebuild a Neighborhood: Example Druid Heights

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