Glory of 'The Avenue' lies in nibble, awaiting delayed revitalization in Upton

WICKHAM, DeWAYNE. “Glory of ‘The Avenue’ Lies in Rubble, Awaiting Delayed Revitalization in Upton.” The Sun (1837-1988). December 30, 1975.

“The Avenue” of old is gone forever. But today, Pennsylvania avenue awaits the future and the promise of Upton, a federally financed urban renewal project already almost five years behind schedule.

The revitalization of the area comes at a time when many members of the city’s black community are now rejecting social integration, which has been blamed for the area’s demise.

Blacks in greater numbers are beginning to look inward in search of an identity that may have had some of its ties to The Avenue of the past.

The Pennsylvania avenue of old-black Baltimore’s cultural hub—lies dead, buried in the rubble of a glorious past. It could not be resurrected. The Pennsylvania avenue of the future will not have a Penn Hotel or even another Royal Theater. The exigencies of the times exclude them.

In their places will rise new housing, a refurbished business district, walking parks, rapid-transit stations and a myriad of other structural amenities.

Upton is a 167.4-acre, multi-million dollar urban renewal project that encompasses 12 of The Avenue’s 23 blocks. Running along Pennsylvania avenue from Biddle street on the south to Bloom street to the north, it is an ambitious, bold and innovative approach to inner city redevelopment. Like so many other projects of its kind, the progress of Up-ion has been hindered by shifts in government priorities and lack of money.

The delays in completion of the project have frustrated area residents. “I keep hearing about this urban renewal thing, but I ain’t seen nothing much happen yet,” said Ruth Jones, of the 1900 block of Pennsylvania avenue. “I see a lot of buildings coming down, but not too many going up.”

Lena Boone, the director of the Upton Planning Council, blames the delay on “government inaction.”

“The slowdown lies with top governmental officials,” she said. “The project began in 1970 and was to be completed by 1976. To date, no construction has begun on the 1,000 new houses called for in the Upton plan.”

According to Mrs. Boone, the redevelopment plan was moving smoothly until early 1973. That year former President Nixon ordered a moratorium on the federal housing spending program, which would have provided subsidies for private developers to build the hew houses, With these funds still embargoed, construction on Pennsylvania avenue has slowed to a crawl.

However, Robert C. Embry, Jr., commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development, said that much of the work will be finished around the original completion date.

“The major work in Upton will be completed or underway during 1976. Most of the land for new construction, has been acquired and cleared.”

However, he admitted that the renovation of the hundreds of private homes in the area will come much later.

At present, much of the lower end (the 500 block through most of the 1100 blocks) is a desolate area—where razed houses, abandoned and boarded up properties stand in silent testimony to the blight of the area.

In the 1300 block of Pennsylvania avenue, where the grand old Royal Theater was once located, the buildings of a bygone era have given way to new structures.

A new elementary school, a new recreation center and a new playground now encompass most of the block. Residents like the additions.

One elderly woman said: “If the rest of Upton is going to be as nice and as useful as this block, then Pennsylvania avenue will be a decent place to live again.”

Area children play ball, ride their bicycles or just chase one another about on the playground area, which once housed the Royal Theater. The sprawling area with its comfortable landscaping offers the youngsters recreational opportunities denied their previous generations.

But across the street, where Mom’s restaurant (known throughout the area for its delicious soul food and homemade cobblers) once stood, there is only the emptiness of a vacant lot awaiting the promised urban redevelopment.

And while there were once seven movie houses on The Avenue, none remains today. The last to close, the Regent, boarded up its front earlier this year.

While the area’s population has been in a slow decline since the early 1960’s, the flight of residents increased as the city began condemning homes in preparation for the Upton redevelopment. The closing movie theaters were only a barometer of the area’s population loss.

Mary Chappell has spent most of her life on or around Pennsylvania avenue and she has witnessed the change.

“With people being relocated because of Upton, I think that a bad element of the younger set has taken over much of the area now,” she said.

A community organizer for Council F of the city’s Urban Services Agency, Mrs. Chappell daily walks the streets of The Avenue.

“We have our problems now. Young girls, 15 and up are mackin’ [prostituting] in the area. And the police seemingly can’t do anything about it. There are one or two liquor establishments, which arc nothing but festering sores in the community, and many of our homes have scores of housing violations,” she said.

In one such house, located just two blocks west of Pennsylvania avenue at 1432 Druid Hill avenue, Mrs. Chappell said that a city housing inspector recently found 317 housing code violations.

The three-story building is divided up into six apartments; each has a multitude of problems.

Becky Estep lives in apartment 2B with her two children. She said that recently, while her son was asleep in his bed, the ceiling collapsed on top of him. Luckily, he sustained only minor injuries.

The apartment has a brand new heating unit, which was installed minus the ducts needed to properly heat the 444-room unit.

On the third floor, in apartment 3C, Florence Burkett keeps the oven on all day to keep the rooms warm for her 9-month-old baby. All of the ceilings in the 344-room apartment are water-soaked and appear to be weak.

The landlord is being pressured by the city to make the necessary improvements, but the residents said that only a few improvements have been made since the building’s last inspection.

The building’s owner, Lawrence Washington, of the 2900 block of Oakhlll avenue, was unavailable for comment

Regarding crime in the area of The Avenue, Maj. Harwood Burrltt, commander of the Central police district, which patrols all of Pennsylvania avenue south of North avenue, disagrees with Mrs. Chappell.

“We’ve had considerably fewer crimes of violence and crimes against property this year than last year in the area of Pennsylvania avenue,” he said.

Major Burritt concedes that the reduction could be due in part to the dwindling population of the area, but he insists, “credit should be given to the good spirit of co-operation that the residents show the police.”

The Avenue has changed over the years, according to J. Hiram Butler, one of the city’s first three black policemen whose beat included Pennsylvania Avenue for almost three decades from 1938 until his retirement as a lieutenant in 1966.

“When I first went on the force, Pennsylvania avenue was just as safe as it could be,” he said.

Mr. Butler said that while some illegal gambling operations existed during the 1930’s and early 1940’s, he said “a person could fall asleep in the doorway of a building then and not wake up with his pockets turned inside out.”

Crime became more violent in the mid-1940’s, Mr. Butler said, when thousands of Southern immigrants flocked to Baltimore in search of jobs In the city’s war industries. “Those people who couldn’t find jobs turned to crime,” he said.

And as middle-class blacks began to leave The Avenue during the 1950’s, violent crime became more of a problem.

During the early 1960’s, the 1500 block of “The Avenue” commonly was referred to as “Death Valley” because of the high rate of violent crimes there, many of them related to heavy drug traffic in the area.

“In recent years the area’s crime has fallen off for lack of victims,” Mr. Butler said. “There just aren’t that many people around to mug,” he said.

In the 1600, 1700 and 1800 blocks of Pennsylvania avenue, Christmas decorations recently spanned the streets as shop owners spruced up their windows for the holiday shoppers. These three blocks make up the bulk of The Avenue’s commercial district, and they will serve as the nucleus around which most of the planned commercial redevelopment will take place.

Herman Katkow is the head of the Pennsylvania Avenue-Lafayette Market Association, the area’s 26-member merchants’ group, and he said the members of the association “are anchored to the community.”

“Next year, the shops in the association will improve their fronts as soon as some of these new homes are completed.”

Mr. Katkow said that the association stores “expect to spend possibly as much as $250,000” to refurbish their buildings. The money will be made available by the city, but the merchants are only required to bring their properties up to housing standard. Any additional work will be done at their own initative.

“Our members work closely with the community. Each year we give 100 food baskets to needy families in the area; we supply a local church with three cases of canned food each month for its feeding program. We like it here and plan to stay in the community,” he said.

However, Earl Roger, a black Pennsylvania avenue businessman who publishes a weekly community newspaper called Good News, said “many of the area’s merchants bring little that is good to Pennsylvania avenue.”

“The Avenue has been one big exploitative area in the black community for years. The merchants here practice the crudest type of relationship with the community.

“They specialize in extreme, faddish fashions. They give to the community only what is necessary for them to survive as exploiters of the area.”

While the commerdal district’s facelifting awaits the construction of the area’s new houses, the two rapid-transit stops planned for Pennsylvania avenue also appear to be on the back burner.

The entire rapid-transit system is now under review by the state. A decision not to build the billion-dollar-plus system would further delay Pennsylvania avenue’s planned redevelopment

As it now stands, the first stop would be located on the northwest corner of Pennsylvania and North avenues, just a few block above the Upton boundary lines.

The second stop is slated for the corner of Pennsylvania avenue and Laurens street—adjacent to the Lafayette Market. If the system, or this station is scrapped, it would be a major blow to the redevelopment to the Upton business district.

Today in the Lafayette Market many vacant stalls attest to the lack of shoppers. Operators of of the stalls that remain open said they are trying to hold on until the new homes and the transit stop are built—until the people displaced by the tearing down that preceded rebuilding, return to The Avenue

And despite the federal housing moratorium, officials of the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development said that much of Upton’s work goes on.

Shirl Byron, the HCD Upton project planner said that “approximately 326 million was originally allocated for Upton.”

The money was supplied under a formula that required the city to put up one-quarter of the needed capital and the federal government to produce the rest However, this allocation can only be used for acquisition of land and property, the relocation of families, razing, for planning purposes and for certain public improvements. It cannot be used for construction of the area’s badly needed new homes.

Mrs. Byron said that the activities financed under the original grant are nearly 80 per cent completed. And, she said that some housing construction is expected to begin soon.

“Several of the planned housing developments were in the pipeline when the moratorium went into effect, so they won approval,” she explained.

Construction on these apartments units, Mrs. Byron said, is set to begin by mld-1976.

When completed sometime In 1978, Mrs. Byron said that a 218-unit senior citizen’s high-rise building, three low- to moderate-income apartment complexes totaling 301 units and 60 new public housing units would comprise slightly more than half of the area’s planned new housing units.

Additionally, Thomas W. Davis, chief of the Department of Housing and Community Development’s planning section, said that money is available from the federal government for area residents to rehabilitate their properties.

However, HCD officials admit that there is little in their plans that will bring middle-class blacks back into the area.

“The five new housing units will be for low- and moderate-income persons,” Mr. Embry said.

Under the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974, the city expects to receive almost $93 million over the next three years to be used for various neighborhood upgrading programs.

According to the law that established the 100 per cent grant program, the money can be used to correct bousing code violations, for the rehabilitation of existing buildings and for payment of the cost of completing an urban renewal program.

Mr. Davis said that the Department of Housing and Community Development plans to use the money to “assist tenants in rehabilitating existing homes in the area.”

The remainder of Pennsylvania avenue’s 11 blocks are included in either the Orcbard-Biddle urban renewal area, or the Pennsylvania-North and Winchester planning areas.

Plans for the redevelopment of the Orchard-Biddle area also were approved in 1970. However, the area is not a conventional urban renewal project.

The Orchard-Biddle urban renewal area lies south of Upton and takes in all of Pennsylvania from its 500 to the 1000 block.

Rather than use one plan to treat the entire area, Orchard-Biddle planners said that a segmented approach has been implemented. Under this plan, certain areas within the renewal area are targeted for rehabilitation and redevelopment are done in stages.

It is a piecemeal approach to urban renewal that was dictated by the federal financing received through the Neighbor Development Program.

Winchester and Pennsylvania-North, which lie to the west and east respectively of the 2200 to 2700 blocks of Pennsylvania avenue, presently have no redevelopment plans under study by the city.

“Nothing is going on now Is the Winchester planning area,” Mr. Davis said. “Our people are getting the community organized to prepare for a funding request for fiscal 1977. We hope by that time they will have identified their priorities.

“We recommend no action for the Pennsylvania-North planning area until the rapid-transit impact study statement [now being prepared by the city’s Planning Department] has been completed,” Mr. Davis said.

No date has been established for the completion of the study.

Text copyright The Baltimore Sun courtesy the ProQuest Historical Newspaper Database via Enoch Pratt Free Library.