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Former Baltimore house of jazz legend Cab Calloway demolished despite activists’ push

Steven Reed, who lives in the neighborhood where Cab Calloway's house sits, says it's not right that the city is tearing it down instead of restoring it.

The Baltimore rowhouse where jazz trailblazer Cab Calloway lived during his teenage years has been demolished, ending a protracted effort from activists to preserve the building as a historic landmark.

The demolition Saturday morning surprised Peter Brooks, Calloway’s grandson and one of the leaders of an effort to save and preserve the house. He livestreamed the process after learning about it from fellow pro-preservation advocate Marti Pitrelli.

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Brooks said city officials didn’t tell him they were planning to tear down the home, along with others on the block, on Saturday. He’s also surprised it happened during the coronavirus pandemic, but he admits there wasn’t a “groundswell of support” from the public to keep the building in place. Although he said the city plans to build a park in Calloway’s honor, he’s worried about its dedication to maintaining the history of its Black artists.

“I knew it was going to happen, but when you lose your foundation, it’s kind of shaky,” he said. “The hope was that this could be an anchor for people in the neighborhood to brag about. The significance of his work is still in play. ...

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“It’s hard to imagine them doing the same thing to Babe Ruth or Edgar Allan Poe,” he added.

The house at 2216 Druid Hill Ave. was at the center of a preservation battle that pitted pro-preservation advocates against the local Druid Heights Community Development Corporation. The fight grew acrimonious at times, with accusations of underhanded methods on both sides.

The battle also pitted members of the Calloway family against one another, with his estate holders backing the Druid Heights CDC and the city’s plan to demolish the dilapidated house (along with other houses on the even side of the 2200 block of Druid Hill Ave.) and build a park named after Calloway. Ashburton resident Brooks, his brother and mother, meanwhile, fought to preserve the house along with supporters that included other local preservationists, developer Brian Hawkins and the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation, among others.

The fight to preserve the house involved numerous appeals against demolition, a site research endeavor by the city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation and other back-and-forth steps over the course of more than a year. Most recently, CHAP recommended that the city designate another house at 1316 N. Carey St., which belonged to Cab Calloway’s maternal grandmother, Annie Reed, as a historic landmark, based on a June bill introduced by Councilman Leon Pinkett.

Pinkett said he didn’t know the exact schedule of demolition, but knew about the possibility that it would take place Saturday. He wished preservationists would have intervened earlier, when the property was in a less dilapidated state.

“If we’re really going to redevelop these communities, if we’re really going to pay homage to African Americans who lived in many sections of Old West Baltimore, then we’ve got to care for the communities that these individuals used to live in, and the people who actually live in the community, just as much as we care about any individual structure,” he said.

“While it is regrettable that 2216 Druid Hill Ave. had decayed to such a dangerous state that it required demolition, it was the community’s consensus that the DHCDC’s green space and affordable housing plans are more important at this time,” read a statement from Cabella Calloway Langsam, Cab’s youngest daughter and the president of the Cab Calloway Foundation.

Executive director Anthony Pressley of the Druid Heights Community Development Corporation previously stated that the plans to demolish the 2200 block’s even-numbered properties and build a park were approved through community meetings well before activists started trying to preserve the house.

Representatives for the Druid Heights Community Development Corporation did not immediately return The Baltimore Sun’s request for comment.

“It’s a tragedy for the city of Baltimore,” said Pitrelli, the activist. She had filed a petition with the Circuit Court of Baltimore City in August that Pitrelli thought entitled them to a hearing before demolition ultimately took place.

Tammy Hawley, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development, said that the city has followed the appropriate process with this demolition, through several rounds of appeals. She did not know about the latest filing that Pitrelli thought entitled preservationists to a hearing.

“We posted notice for demolition in March of this year,” Hawley wrote via email. “That work was halted after an appeal was filed. We then followed the established process and the hearing was held. The Judge ruled in favor of the City in mid-July. Once no additional appeals were filed, we proceeded with the work. Work on the block resumed on August 24th and has been proceeding since then.”

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Calloway was best known for his accomplishments as a jazz singer and bandleader, as well as his acting in movies like “The Blues Brothers.” After spending part of his youth in Baltimore, he became famous for his connections to the Cotton Club in Harlem, New York, and the greater popularization of big band jazz. He and other jazz musicians of his day played venues like the Royal Theatre on Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue, which was a few blocks from the house at 2216 Druid Hill Ave. and now only exists as a facade after being torn down in 1971.

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