For years, West Baltimore residents lamented the collapse of noted arts and entertainment establishments on Pennsylvania Avenue, worried that the faltering of the historic section of Baltimore was reflective of a city losing its cultural heritage.
Brion Gill, the executive director for the formerly named Pennsylvania Avenue Black Arts & Entertainment District, unveiled the district’s new name, the “Black Arts District,” at the event while also showcasing the new logo, which is composed of a series of stark shapes and colors reminiscent of African and geometric art styles to spell out the district’s new acronym: “B.A.D.”
And yes, district officials are leaning into Michael Jackson definition of “B.A.D.”
“We be the Black Arts District. We be bad. We so bad, we good,” Gill said after finishing a poem dedicated to the district and its history.
In July, state officials marked the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor an official arts and entertainment district, which will open up property tax credit opportunities for developers who construct or renovate spaces for artisans. The designation also opens up possible tax exemptions for artists in the district, including an income tax subtraction for artistic work produced and sold in the district.
Sunday’s event was both a celebration and an opportunity to catch up on the work of the leaders behind the yearslong movement, which hopes to capture the magic “The Avenue” had in the early part of the 20th century, when the strip was lined with black theaters, hotels and live music venues.
Gill said part of Sunday’s event was to “distinguish ourselves as an independent entity” after a number of groups came together to push for the corridor to be designated an arts district. She now leads the Philadelphia Avenue Black Arts & Entertainment District LLC, a nonprofit that will fund and oversee the development of the district.
She also outlined the group’s plans for the future, which she said are keeping an eye toward “anti-gentrification," so as to not displace residents who already live in the district.
“I think for us, one of the reasons why we were very adamant about calling this a black arts and entertainment district is because this is a community that is predominantly black folks,” she said. “And so, for us, we want the businesses that come here, we want the development that happens here to center around the folks who are already here.”
She said the district will be launching a pilot program to have Baltimore artists’ work featured and on sale in homes that are listed for sale with scheduled open houses. The nonprofit also plans to host “First Saturdays” in the district, at which people will be treated to food and live music from local performers in the region the first Saturday of every month.
There are also loftier goals, such as the desire for a larger arts festival in West Baltimore, which Gill said she hopes can bring the kind of economic activity other parts of the city see with similar festivals.
Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said he was hopeful the region could thrive in a way that’s unique but still pays homage to the legacy of such establishments as Gamby’s and Club Casino, which used to line the corridor before statewide desegregation minimized the appeal of the area in the 1960s.
“We can’t bring it back to the way it was. We can bring it back to better than what it was,” Young said.
Councilman Eric Costello, who represents much of the district, said: “The revitalization of the historic Pennsylvania Avenue corridor is something that’s right around the corner. And it’s going to happen in a way that respects the history of the avenue and it’s going to happen in a way that involves community partnerships.”
Before city dignitaries spoke to the audience Sunday afternoon, Baltimore artist Black Assets sang a song she said she’d written for a friend who’d recently died, saying that while she’d hoped he could be up in Baltimore visiting her and her family, “sometimes things get in the way.”
At the end of an emotional song, one during which Black Assets, born Ashley Yates, had the crowd sing back “Walk in your purpose now” in a call-and-response section, she addressed the crowd briefly before Gill and city dignitaries took over the proceedings.