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A vision for North Avenue

Where the passengers on the tour bus rolling west on North Avenue saw blocks of crumbling and abandoned buildings and overgrown lots, Lou Fields envisioned another Pratt Street in the making.

Fields, who heads a nonprofit heritage tourism group, is leading an effort to revitalize what he views as one of the city's most overlooked thoroughfares. Progress is possible, he says, even in tough economic times.

"Attention, awareness and appreciation — if you don't have those things going on, nothing's going to happen," said Fields, who views his role as that of "visionary crusader."

"We can't think that North Avenue is going to improve itself by itself."

On Thursday, Fields led a busload of city residents, business leaders and government officials on a tour of North Avenue, from Coppin State University on the west to the Great Blacks in Wax Museum on the east, in hopes of shedding light on problems and uniting groups trying to tackle them.

Fields, who heads the African American Tourism Council of Maryland, plans to send a report to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake with recommendations from meetings with city officials and community members and from the bus tour.

He believes work could begin with small projects — such as neighborhood cleanup days or projects to landscape properties and paint vacant eyesores — that could be organized by the city, or business or community groups.

Such goals were welcomed Thursday by Annie Hall, president of the Penn North Community Association.

Hall met the group at Pennsylvania Avenue, the hub of African-American culture in the city in the middle of the last century.

Significant sites near the intersection include the 19th-century Etting Cemetery and the nearly 100-year-old Arch Social Club. But the neighborhood is plagued by vacant houses and lots.

Hall, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 50 years, said residents hope to attract new businesses.

"We have a lot of work cut out for us," she said. "I'm glad to see some attention brought to the area. This area has been ignored for 20 years."

With vacant properties come opportunities for businesses seeking space, said Richard E. Fradkin, a vice president with the real estate advisory firm Grubb & Ellis.

Fields said his goal — to "clean and green North Avenue from Milton to Hilton" — took root in his work as a tour guide promoting African-American history and culture. He said he has taken thousands of tourists through the Great Blacks in Wax Museum and highlighted sites along North and Pennsylvania avenues. But the tourists have raised concerns about vacant homes, overgrown yards and trash.

Fields invited his guests Thursday to "jot down anything that could be improved upon or something that looks good."

He pointed out tidy residential areas where homeowners took pride in their properties and successful businesses have survived the decades — a stark contrast to the blocks of abandoned rowhouses.

During a stop at North Avenue and North Charles Street, Fields pointed out the success of many of the new businesses that have moved into the Station North Arts and Entertainment District.

Kevin Brown, an owner of Station North Arts Cafe, said people questioned his plans five years ago to open in the district.

"'Oh, my God. That's near North Avenue,'" he recalled them saying. But other new businesses followed, attracting customers and bringing vibrancy to the area.

"The neighborhood is changing," he said. "Small businesses like us have decided to set up shop."

The North Avenue corridor has strong anchors such as Coppin, the city's Board of Education headquarters, and the wax museum, where on Thursday busloads of tourists from Ohio and New Jersey crowded into the lobby.

The wax museum is planning a major expansion with a new 60,000-square-foot building that would have a spacious lobby and rooftop garden, said Joanne Martin, who founded the museum with her husband in 1983. The museum has been acquiring nearby properties to demolish for the expansion.

"When our visitors come, we would like them to feel this is an area that the city cares about," Martin said. "We want to give people an all-day experience on North Avenue. There is so much potential."

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