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A bastion of Baltimore’s Black history and culture, Upton neighborhood seen as center for revitalization

Editor’s note: The Upton profile is one article in The Sun’s City of Neighborhoods series, spotlighting Baltimore communities.

From the legacy of Pennsylvania Avenue jazz clubs to the places where civil rights leaders grew up, West Baltimore’s Upton neighborhood is rich with Black spiritual, cultural and political history.

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“When you think about especially African Americans who have had impact, not just in the nation but internationally, many of them either lived, worked or spent some aspect of their lives in the Upton community,” said former City Councilman Leon Pinkett III. He never represented Upton but spent parts of his career there, working for then-Councilman Keiffer Mitchell Jr. and the Baltimore Development Corp.

Many see Upton as an emerging center of revitalization.

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“I saw what it once was, and trying to re-create that in some ways, like having a thriving community — that’s what I’m interested in,” said Shelley Halstead, who created Black Women Build to advance homeownership and wealth-building among Black women.

Despite facing challenges linked to historic segregation, Upton residents praise its community spirit and local pride.

Upton/Marble Hill resident Shelley Halstead is the leader of Black Women Build, an organization that trains black women in carpentry, electrical, and plumbing skills by restoring vacant and deteriorated houses in West Baltimore.
Upton/Marble Hill resident Shelley Halstead is the leader of Black Women Build, an organization that trains black women in carpentry, electrical, and plumbing skills by restoring vacant and deteriorated houses in West Baltimore. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

History

Upton shares its name with a Greek Revival mansion at 811 W. Lanvale St. The structure (and future home of the Afro-American Newspaper) was commissioned by attorney David Stewart in the 1830s. By the early 1900s, the neighborhood was among the city’s most prestigious African-American enclaves. Thurgood Marshall grew up and attended school in Upton before becoming a civil rights attorney and U.S. Supreme Court justice. Other African-American luminaries with Upton connections include musicians Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday and Eubie Blake; and activists Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson and Clarence Mitchell Jr.

Physical space

Upton falls within the Old West Baltimore Historic District. It is bordered by Druid Heights, Harlem Park, Heritage Crossing, Madison Park and Sandtown-Winchester. Housing stock mostly consists of archetypal Baltimore row homes, with the Marble Hill section boasting Queen Anne and Italianate homes. Some public housing is under construction.

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Upton boasts tree-lined streets and parks. Among its landmarks are the Billie Holiday statue, The Royal Theatre marquee, the Shake & Bake Family Fun Center and houses of worship, such as the Bethel AME Church, Union Baptist Church and the Baltimore Masjid.

Bethel A.M.E. Church stands at the corner of Druid Hill Avenue and W. Lanvale Street in Baltimore's Upton neighborhood.
Bethel A.M.E. Church stands at the corner of Druid Hill Avenue and W. Lanvale Street in Baltimore's Upton neighborhood. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Things to do

If you’re hungry, try the Avenue Market, the soul food and lake trout at T&M Carryout or any one of Pennsylvania Avenue’s many eateries.

For relaxation, check out Henry H. Garnet Park and Robert C. Marshall Park; the Marshall Recreation Center is providing temporary service this winter as a homeless shelter.

You also can tour the Pennsylvania Avenue Heritage Trail, which winds through Upton and Bolton Hill with stops including Thurgood Marshall’s childhood home.

Demographics

Upton’s population fell from 8,236 in the 1990 Census to 5,746 in the 2010 Census, according to an analysis by Baltimore’s planning department — and the city’s total population has fallen in the past decade. In 2018, Upton’s median household income was $27,904, about 55% of the city’s median income; it had higher unemployment (12%) than the city at large (7%). The median home sales price from 2017-2019 was about $20,000.

The city planning department’s analysis of 2018 data showed more than 90% of Upton residents were Black, with white residents as the next-largest racial demographic.

Transit and walkability

Upton’s walkability score ranks 81 out of 100, according to Live Baltimore. The Upton Metro stop sits at Pennsylvania Avenue and Laurens Street, and the CityLink Lime bus runs along Pennsylvania Avenue.

Booker T. Washington Middle School is seen from the bay window of a recently rehabbed home in Baltimore's Upton neighborhood.
Booker T. Washington Middle School is seen from the bay window of a recently rehabbed home in Baltimore's Upton neighborhood. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Issues

Like many of Baltimore’s neighborhoods, Upton deals with hard drugs. The sight of people selling or looking for narcotics isn’t rare, say neighbors, nor is the associated violence. Four people were slain last year in Upton.

As Upton increasingly appeals to developers and new homeowners, issues of gentrification and displacement also concern residents. Halstead complained of a “food desert” without many fresh food options.

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“That [lack of options] has happened through redlining, and it is super frustrating … it would be great to have some more choices here, and I understand it’s difficult because Black folks aren’t getting loans,” she said. “It’s complete disinvestment.”

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Leadership

Development in Upton is connected to the Upton Planning Committee, which comprises several regional neighborhood associations and is led by executive director Wanda G. Best. Part of Upton falls within the Black Arts and Entertainment District, whose executive director is spoken-word poet Lady Brion Gill. The neighborhood is part of the 11th City Council district, represented by Eric Costello.

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