What Would A Black Arts and Entertainment District Mean for Baltimore?

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Baltimore’s charm is often seen through its arts and culture. But who has access to the proper resources, and what communities are being left out of the conversation?

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Story Transcript

EZE JACKSON: Baltimore is often highlighted for being one of America’s most violent cities. With the high murder rate and recent revelations of police corruption, the city faces many challenges. But the charm of the city can be found largely through its arts and culture.

KEVIN BROWN: The wonderful thing about the city, or maybe the awkward thing about the city, is that there are pockets of poverty and islands of excellence. Meaning that there are people doing really, really well in certain parts of the city with their arts and their crafts, and in other parts of the city they’re grappling for resources. We should have some type of seamless success where everybody is doing good and everybody rises at the same time. That’s so important.

EZE JACKSON: Even with such a rich history in the arts, Baltimore also faces challenges with who has access to these resources. There are three arts and entertainment districts: Station North, Bromo, and Highlandtown.

KEVIN BROWN: And what makes the Station North arts district different than the Bromo district or the Highlandtown arts district is that the artists were already here.

EZE JACKSON: Kevin Brown is co-owner of two cafés: the Station North Arts Cafe, and Nancy, both located in Station North. Kevin and his partner Bill have been in Station North since 1993.

KEVIN BROWN: We’ve been here in the neighborhood for 25 years this year. As a matter of fact, the first thing we did in Station North was to bring Eartha Kitt here. We were there before any of those white groups were in there. I’ve seen a number of what I call legacy residents be displaced because of gentrification, because of new ideas, new plans. It’s the $27 million dollar North Avenue Rising grant that Sen. Barbara Mikulski put on North Avenue from Hilton to Milton to improve buildings, sidewalks, curb cuts, transportation, beautification, facade improvement. And it’s all coming together at one time, but for who?

EZE JACKSON: Lady Brion is an award-winning spoken word artist and slam champion, as well as the cultural curator of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a black think tank leading the charge in creating a black arts and entertainment district. The target area is the historic Pennsylvania Avenue corridor. Brion’s organization is set to be the fiduciary and managerial body of the black arts and entertainment district, should it come into existence. Once home to theaters, bars, and social clubs during the country’s most segregated times, Pennsylvania Avenue was once a safe haven for not only black entertainers who made the stop in what was called the Chitlin’ Circuit, but its patrons, who did not have to abide by Jim Crow laws like entering venues from the back door, or being serviced in alleyways.

Pennsylvania Avenue has since seen the decline that many American inner cities have seen, falling victim to the crack epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s; white and middle class flight to the suburbs; and loss of key businesses.

LADY BRION: Since earlier this year, February, I’ve been working to put in the four applications of the Maryland State Arts Council and Department of Commerce to actually get this area designated. And I’ve received a lot of support and have been working with partners all along the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor, including Pennsylvania Avenue, Main Street, Upton CDC, Druid Heights CDC, Arch Social Club, and a number of other organizations.

EZE JACKSON: But this isn’t the first time talks of a black arts and entertainment district have taken place in Baltimore.

LADY BRION: What’s different about this time, this go round? There’s never been a formal application submitted on behalf of the city of Baltimore to designate this area. So this will be the first application that would actually be submitted. So I’m hopeful that this time around we can actually make it happen.

EZE JACKSON: Some people, including Kevin, are skeptical about revitalizing Pennsylvania Avenue.

KEVIN BROWN: It seems that the time for Pennsylvania Avenue was a long time coming, and I’ve seen many, many, many, many plans to revision it, to rebrand it, to repackage it. It needs leadership; leadership and resources. I don’t think it’s maybe the greatest place to do it, because things have happened there before and we want to recapture that. I get that. But I think for a black arts district, if you’re going to do it, I think you need to start somewhere fresh and build out from that.

EZE JACKSON: But Lady Brion believes there’s no better place to do it.

LADY BRION: This area has experienced extreme disinvestment, and that’s the point. That’s the reason, one of the reasons, why this is the area that I think is perfect for this effort. Because arts and entertainment districts are a signal to the city of Baltimore, to investors, to enterprises and businesses that this is a place that you should come and invest in.

And I think it’s actually untrue that there is no investment in this area. North Avenue Rising is a large grant that is going to be significantly changing the North Avenue corridor. You also have a number of new pots of money that is coming down the pike from the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland to invest in areas like Pennsylvania Avenue. This area actually is an intersection of a number of incentive programs, from an opportunity zone, to food incentive tax credits. There’s a number of folks who have tried to figure out ways to bring in new businesses, to bring in new investment, to inspire new community development.

So I think the opposite is true. I think what it has been missing is the concerted effort to use all of those incentives to actually better this area.

EZE JACKSON: I asked Lady Brion what a new Pennsylvania Avenue would look like.

LADY BRION: The team that I’m working with, we have envisioned, you know, a list of goals for Pennsylvania Avenue, if you will. And some of those things include, first and foremost, we want to create what we’re calling a destination for diasporan cuisine. So if you think about Maryland, if you think about the East Coast, I can’t name a place where if I want black food, where do I go. Right? If I want food from the Caribbean, I want food from West Africa, I want Senegalese food, or food from Ghana, or Southern cuisine that black folks do it, and do it right. Where do I go? And our hope is with the Avenue Market, and we have Supreme Eatery and other places, that we could really tailor this avenue to be that kind of destination.

Another goal that we have is to really create a strategy combining community development and a strategy to bring in new arts enterprises and organizations to utilize a lot of these vacant storefronts that, you know, have been vacant for decades, in some regard, and maybe find some capital improvement dollars or bond bills or what have you that can be that foundational pot of money to bring these buildings up to code, and get some new some new business there. You know, another goal for us is to actually make Pennsylvania Avenue a destination, a tourism destination by way of a large scale annual festival. And so we’ve been throwing around ideas of what that could really look like.

We have a lot of goals. And we recognize that, you know, crime and blight has definitely withered away this community if you will, and we’re hoping that arts and entertainment coupled with strategic community development can help answer back those things, as well.

EZE JACKSON: Both artists believe investment and support of the city’s arts and culture is vital.

KEVIN BROWN: It’s an art city, and it’s a city that needs some rebranding. And the arts will help us move to the next level.

EZE JACKSON: For The Real News Network, I’m Eze Jackson. Tuesday, July 31 is the last day of our summer fundraising campaign. If you haven’t given already, or can give a little more, please click the donate button. Without your support, there would be no Real News.