Reinvesting in a historic city neighborhood
By: Joe Nathanson February 24, 2022
A little over five years ago, a consulting assignment took me to Miami, specifically to Miami’s Overtown neighborhood. Overtown was once the heart of Miami’s African American community. During the South’s Jim Crow era, Overtown became a thriving center of African American commerce and entertainment for all of South Florida.
The community supported a vibrant commercial corridor. Patrons could access local convenience stores, the offices of medical doctors and other service and retail facilities. Overtown also became a prominent center of arts and culture attracting local whites, Blacks, as well as tourists.
According to the website, Learning from Miami, “After Black entertainers performed on Miami Beach, they headed to Overtown for late night shows and stayed at one of its iconic hotels. … Sammy Davis Jr., Cab Calloway, Redd Foxx, Nat “King” Cole, Josephine Baker, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald were some of the key entertainers that performed on the long-gone ‘Little Broadway’ strip … .” It must be noted that these Black performers headed to Overtown hotels, because the downtown Miami hotels, such as the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc, were closed to them.
But the building of Interstate expressways in the 1960s tore through the heart of Overtown. The interchange of I-95 with I-395 required the clearance of over 20 city blocks containing the homes and businesses of Overtown residents. A community of 40,000 was scattered, with only about 10,000 of the residents remaining. Overton, in the words of one observer, was left “an urban wasteland.”
I was reminded of my experience in Miami when I watched a recent segment of Baltimore Heritage’s Five-Minute History Lessons presented by its director, Johns Hopkins. Baltimore had its own place on the so-called “Chitlin’ Circuit,” the network of entertainment palaces found in the major cities of the South, Midwest and Northeast. Baltimore’s own entertainment gem was the Royal Theatre on Pennsylvania Avenue, and it hosted the same galaxy of stars performing the blues, jazz, and soul.
Pennsylvania Avenue and its surrounding neighborhoods were not demolished to make way for a major highway. The causes of its decline were many. There were urban renewal projects, including the construction of nearby high-rise public housing, which did not yield the expected beneficial results. White flight from surrounding West Baltimore continued during the 1960s and accelerated after Pennsylvania Avenue was damaged during the 1968 riots, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And then there was desegregation itself, which opened up new opportunities to the Black community, allowing it to venture into entertainment venues and places of public accommodation previously denied to it. After a long period of decline, in 1971 the Royal Theatre was demolished.
In the half-century since, there have been a number of initiatives designed to reclaim some of Pennsylvania Avenue’s vibrant past. Most, to date, have been largely symbolic.
It took the efforts of a group called the Pennsylvania Avenue Redevelopment Committee, the Upton Planning Committee and many other local groups collaborating with the Mayor’s Office over a period of seven years to erect the Royal Theatre Marquee Monument in 2004. There have also been efforts to revitalize the Avenue Market and restock it with vendors from the community.
Some successes are seen in the resurrected Shake and Bake Center, a community center offering roller skating, arcade games and other entertainment; the ongoing popularity of James “Jim” Hamlin’s Avenue Bakery, home of the “poppay’s rolls;” and the enduring presence of the Pennsylvania Avenue branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, built in 1953 and the first neighborhood institution to reopen following the unrest in 2015.
The latest initiative has been to secure official state recognition of the city’s fourth Arts and Entertainment District. Courtesy of Johns Hopkins’ five-minute history lesson I was introduced to Lady Brion Gill, a spoken word artist and the cultural curator of the grassroots think tank, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. Now serving as the executive director of the Pennsylvania Avenue Black Arts and Entertainment District, Lady Brion hopes to ignite new interest in the area by harnessing the energies of a new generation of creative types.
On the occasion of this Black History Month, perhaps there might be an opportunity to give further thought to how a serious campaign of reinvestment could bring meaningful, sustainable change to a storied Baltimore neighborhood. Grassroots groups, city government and the philanthropic community, working together, should consider taking this enterprise on as a means of reinvesting in a neighborhood that has seen too much disinvestment.
Joe Nathanson is the retired principal of Urban Information Associates, a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. Since 2001, he has written a monthly column for The Daily Record and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org