On first glance, the three-floor home at 2216 Druid Hill Ave. looks much like others on its block: vacant, weathered, boarded up and marked with white Xes on red square signs that confirm it is, indeed, structurally unsound. Patches of blue-green paint have peeled off its facade, revealing the red bricks underneath. Weeds grow on its stoop.
Only a small white sign on a boarded-up first-floor window, spelling out “Cab Calloway” in blue bubble letters, indicates its past life as a home for one of Baltimore’s most famous artists.
Marti Pitrelli takes credit for the sign. Citing a mix of census records and historical accounts like Alyn Shipton’s “Hi-De-Ho: The Life of Cab Calloway,” which notes that the jazz great lived there in his teens, Pitrelli has publicly argued for the house’s importance.
Pitrelli and various supporters — including Calloway’s grandson, Peter C. Brooks — oppose a city- and community group-backed plan to raze the house, as well as other vacant properties on its side of the block. The land would then form part of a new park, called Cab Calloway Square, slated for construction beginning in 2021.
“My position is: Once these homes are gone, they’re gone forever, and the city should really keep its options open and consider developing it into a tourist or commercial type of thing,” Brooks said.
On city- and neighborhood-focused Facebook pages, like Historic Marble Hill Neighbors, Pitrelli called on group members to make sure the city and its partners integrate the house into the park instead of demolishing it.
”It would be cultural genocide to destroy Cab Calloway's home,” she wrote on May 25. “The city should be protecting our cultural treasures, not destroying them.”
Pitrelli’s post linked to an online survey from Design Collective, a Baltimore-based architecture and planning firm working with the city’s Department of Planning and the Druid Heights Community Development Corp. on Cab Calloway Square. The survey seeks feedback until June 10 and specifies that the planning department “identified the block bounded by Baker Street, Druid Hill Avenue, Gold Street, and Division Street” as an ideal space. It also notes that the park is part of the Baltimore Green Network Vision, an initiative designed to bring more green spaces to Baltimore’s neighborhoods.
“The purpose of Cab Calloway Square is to create a community amenity that all of the residents within the neighborhood could enjoy,” Baltimore Green Network coordinator Kimberly Knox wrote in an email. “Green spaces provide financial, health and social benefits to a community.”
Design Collective associate Anna Dennis and Druid Heights CDC executive director Anthony Pressley confirmed that the plans would involve demolishing the house. They noted that their organizations solicited community input through the CDC’s monthly community meetings at the Maggie Quille Community Center, where the CDC has offices. The Design Collective created an aerial rendering of where the park would sit at an on-site community event on May 25.
They also noted that the park would incorporate bricks and marble staircases from the house into its design.
“The community is fully for the square,” Pressley said. He critiqued Pitrelli’s protest as counterproductive.
“Ms. Pitrelli does not live in this community, she has not attended two years of our community meetings, she has not been a part of the planning, she’s just been a part of the protest,” Pressley said. He added that the buildings on that block have been boarded up and vacant since the unrest following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968.
Pitrelli, for her part, said that she lives in the historic Marble Hill area near Henry Highland Garnet Park, in the adjacent Upton neighborhood. The area, like the adjacent Druid Heights, was home to the now-demolished Freedom House and other historic properties that link back to its black cultural and political legacy. Pitrelli said that this history lends itself to tremendous tourism potential, which she’s witnessed by giving tours of Marble Hill through the non-profit organization Baltimore Heritage.
“People from all over the world come to see the famous jazz history, ” she wrote in an email. “People want to touch the history, see the history, experience the history, and the architecture is key to that.”
Calloway, who was born in 1907 and died in 1994, was dubbed "the King of Hi-De-Ho” and widely associated with Harlem’s Cotton Club. An actor, band leader and scat singer, he had his biggest hit with “Minnie the Moocher.” But he recalled getting his musical start in Baltimore and said that the city had been “one of the great centers of jazz.”
Pitrelli previously worked to conserve the Henry Highland Garnet and Billie Holiday Memorial parks. She criticized the logic that building parks and razing blighted properties can, in and of themselves, bolster surrounding neighborhoods.
“It costs a lot of money to build from scratch, so it’s really hard to get developers to build new stuff...it’s just never going to happen,” she said. “But if we work with what we’ve got, and maintain the Druid Heights corridor, put homeowners in there — that’s going to help ensure the success of the park.”
Both Pitrelli and Pressley said that homeownership and the acknowledgement of Calloway’s centrality to the neighborhood matter. Pressley and Knox argued that the new park would be an asset to those living on the 2200 block’s odd-numbered side. Pitrelli said that the city’s various incentives for new homeowners make historic properties economically sensible and accused officials of misleading communities to think that preservation costs more money and resources than demolition.
Brooks, who said he learned about the house’s history in part from Pitrelli, spoke at the May 25 event. He has created a pamphlet dedicated to his grandfather’s history and remains passionate about preserving the full narrative around his grandfather’s musical and cultural contributions.
“I really think [the house] should be a location for all of Baltimore’s jazz history, and emphasize a lot of the things my grandfather sang about: food, fashion, having a good time, sports, athletics — he was really a good time kind of guy,” he said. “He wanted people to feel good.”