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Baltimore City

Unity Hall seeks to bridge neighborhood barriers in West Baltimore

On the way to the recent ribbon cutting for the $9.7 million Unity Hall, I noticed how a nearby neighborhood street, Lanvale, simply ends at Eutaw Place, then resumes a bit later in West Baltimore. The street’s dead-end and a garden built at that spot says, “Don’t even try to enter.”

The story of that street closing tells a story about the racial divisions that have tormented city neighborhoods for decades.

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There is hope — the opening of Unity Hall underscores what could happen in Baltimore. Neighborhoods separated by years of division are acknowledging each other now and speaking. It’s taken a while.

Unity Hall, built on the site of the demolished Phoenix Club, home to Baltimore’s elite Jewish medical professionals and merchants, is housed in a former 1964 Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union venue. It’s been thoroughly refurbished and is open to arts and neighborhood groups.

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Nancy Hooff, an owner of Somerset Development, the firm that spearheaded Unity Hall’s arrival, characterized Eutaw Place as “a bright line of segregation” in the past.

“And that segregation still manifests itself,” she added.

The hall’s director, Petula Caesar, said: “It’s easy to dehumanize folks you don’t know. I look forward to people coming here and planning a revolution.”

Located at 1205 Eutaw Place, the hall is something of a new arrival (although the building is 58 years old) in a neighborhood setting of grand mansions set off by a boulevard with cast iron fountains and monuments.

The hall sits on a dividing line of race. Bolton Hill is to the east and Marble Hill, Upton and Druid Heights are to the west.

The hall’s opening includes a fine, well researched historic display, “Division and Unity in Central West Baltimore.”

It reveals the story of housing segregation, leaders and institutions of the civil rights movement. The presentation is the work of local Black historian Philip J. Merrill and his African American heritage consulting firm Nanny Jack & Co. LLC (named after his great-grandmother who was a midwife, Gertrude Jackson). It was underwritten by Bolton Hill’s Memorial Episcopal Church.

Merrill lived as a child in Sandtown and is a graduate of the Baltimore Friends School and Loyola University Maryland. He listened to the stories of local history from his grandmother and her friends. Armed with his engaging personality, he heard the stories that don’t make print.

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“Baltimore has enough history to keep us busy for ten lifetimes,” said Merrill, who is a specialist in Baltimore’s segregated past.

Merrill learned from others. The late Thomas Ward, a former City Council member who lived on Linden Avenue in the 1950s and 1960s, watched his neighborhood be torn apart by racism and urban renewal. Ward unsuccessfully fought urban renewal and watched as his own 19th century home was condemned and torn down and replaced by 1960s-1970s garden-style homes.

Merrill has created a series of story boards and linked them to specific streets. A finder of lost historic documents and artifacts, he came up with a match book from the old Phoenix Club, one of the structures bulldozed along Eutaw Place to make the Unity Hall.

He shows how the Mount Royal Protective Association, founded in 1928, promoted “white occupancy” for much of what we call Bolton and Reservoir Hill. The strategy created a nucleus of segregated blocks which, in conjunction with city planners, created the network of dead-end streets, such as Lanvale.

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His research on Dolphin Street, where the Baltimore office of the NAACP was located, contains the story of how an East Baltimore Black pastor, Rev. Edmund Meade, sought the organization’s help when he tried to buy a Barclay Street home in 1937. White neighbors hired attorney William L. Marbury, a mainstay of the Mount Royal Protective Association, to block the sale.

Merrill also focuses on neighborhood activists, including Walter Thomas Dixon, who was elected to the Baltimore City Council in 1955 after 25 years of no Black people serving on that body. Dixon, co-founder of the Cortez W. Peters Business School, which trained scores of African Americans in typing and business skills, worked along his white political mentor and boss Jack Pollack.

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The hall is part of a contiguous campus of structures that Somerset Development has adopted. These include the former Memorial Apartments, the senior citizen residence now known as Linden Green.

Hooff, who co-owns Somerset Development with her life and business partner, Jim Campbell, said she wanted to do the right thing when she initially came to Baltimore and found the old Memorial Apartments in need of help.

The hall has a mission statement. It says it is “intended to break down barriers that have traditionally divided the community and to build a healthy, safe neighborhood for all, by providing resources and a venue for creativity.”

It will offer “below-market rents” to nonprofit and community-based organizations for office and program spaces for meetings, events, training sessions or community gatherings.

“We set up this exhibit — I thought it was a movement from division to unity, but in reality, we, the old Mount Royal Protective Association and Memorial Church were actively engaged in division,” said the Rev. Gray Maggiano, rector of Memorial Episcopal Church. “Bolton Hill is not what is was in those days, but the racism still ensues in insidious ways. Having Unity Hall as a place where you can gather makes the future a lot brighter.”


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