A large and enthusiastic crowd jammed The Avenue Bakery on Tuesday, July 23, 2019 to witness history.
Baltimore Mayor Jack Young and others formally announced the creation of the Pennsylvania Avenue Black Arts and Entertainment District, which officials say is the first of its kind in the state. Lady Brion Gill, the acting executive director of the district, says it’s one of just a handful throughout the country.
“It is really significant both on a local level and on a national level,” Gill said. “I have great hopes and dreams for what this is and what it means to revitalize this area,” she said.
Baltimore Councilman Leon F. Pinkett III said the designation should lead to a groundswell of new tourism and activity.
“The Black Arts and Entertainment District is an opportunity to build from the rich history of the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor and an opportunity to bring revitalization and redevelopment into the community,” Pinkett said. “There have been efforts in the past and I’m so proud of the partnership that came together to really make this a reality. This is a significant moment not just for West Baltimore and not just for the city, but for Maryland.”
The designation of the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor as Maryland’s first Black Arts and Entertainment District— which is uniquely designed to celebrate black cultural productions in Baltimore— actually occurred on July 1, 2019 when three tax credits and $15,000 in operational funding was awarded to the district.
Mayor Young called the designation “a shot in the arm,” while many have lobbied for the designation for years.
Rosa Pryor, an author, historian and columnist of the famous “Rambling Rose” columns, recalled fondly when Pennsylvania Avenue was a hotspot for Black Baltimore and it attracted such stars like Sammy Davis Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey and Billie Holiday.
“Men were always dressed to the nines; you never saw tennis shoes and jeans in the evening on Pennsylvania Avenue, and women wore hats and their Sunday best,” Pryor said. “What people need to understand too, is that when we went out back in the day, they didn’t just play jazz, it was R&B and it was ‘doo wop,’ and there were the clubs like the Sphinx, Club Casino and the Royal Theater and I think after the Royal Theater closed is when things changed.”
Pryor says she hopes the new designation of the Black Arts and Entertainment District along Pennsylvania Avenue will help reignite that old spark. “I just need to hear more of the plans and where the money will come from,” Pryor said.
Pinkett says that funding mechanism is already in place and more are being sought. He is optimistic that there is enough money available to make the dream of a revitalized Pennsylvania Avenue a reality.
“There are significant dollars in the heritage tourism industry. If we make strategic and intentional investments in communities like the Pennsylvania Avenue community, there will be support not just from inside Baltimore but from people throughout the nation,” Pinkett said.
Mayor Young said he is fast at work in ensuring financial and other backings. He said he’s talking to several new businesses from outside of Baltimore hoping to convince them to move to the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor, including a restaurant in Washington that he said is well known. Young says businesses that commit must realize the plan to stay open past normal hours.
“We’re going to have to stay open late to keep our own folk here,” Young said.
The goals of the new district include “empowering creatives and residents, expanding the arts and cultural ecosystem,” Gill said.
“The good thing is that we have the assets but we need the infrastructure,” said Jim Hamlin of The Avenue Bakery.
At the press conference, retired city firefighter Bill Hennick salivated over what the new arts district could do for the local economy.
“Once this thing starts rolling, it will create possibly 2,000 jobs or more,” Hennick said.