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A 'soul' street gets a makeover from city

The Baltimore Sun

The area has been vacant for years, just a large patch of grass and a few scattered trees enclosed by a fence at Fremont and Pennsylvania avenues.

But city officials are planning to transform the blighted spot into a plaza, complete with a stage for outdoor performances, called Legends Park.

"Grass and a couple of trees are good, but we can do better," M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., said at an event yesterday to break ground on the new project. "It was all dirt for a long time." But now, he added, "It will be inspiring for people."

The $275,000 project will provide lighting and a paved plaza with chess and checker tables to accommodate an informal, outdoor concert venue in an effort to commemorate - and revive - a bit of Baltimore's musical past.

The park is named "Legends" for the number of famous former residents and musicians who got their start along the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor.

The area was known as a jazz hot spot after World War II, said James Hamlin, president of the Pennsylvania Avenue Redevelopment Collaborative. "If you wanted to experience jazz, you came to Pennsylvania Avenue," Hamlin said.

Pennsylvania Avenue "was the epicenter of entertainment" for African-Americans, said Tamm E. Hunt, a jazz recording artist, historian and author of Jazz Baltimore: The Unsung Mecca. "It was one of America's 'soul' streets."

Hunt listed a number of musicians who got their start or performed regularly in Baltimore. She said the Royal Theater was the biggest venue, featuring such acts as Chick Webb, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday, who would later live in the Upton neighborhood.

"The same acts that played at the Apollo played at the Royal," she said. Pennsylvania Avenue "was a real destination."

In addition to the numerous jazz musicians, the area was home to artists, entertainers, and business and national leaders, including former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and Rep. Parren J. Mitchell.

But over time, the neighborhood began to lose its identity as a hub of African-American culture and entertainment, Hunt said, and Pennsylvania Avenue began to lose many of its celebrated clubs.

To honor Baltimore's influential musical past and other notable figures from the area, the new park will feature a wall bearing the names of the "Legends." The park will help community members today "gain a rich sense of their ancestors who grew up, worked and played here," Mayor Sheila Dixon said.

Community leaders are working to revitalize the neighborhood and bring back some of its former luster with other projects, including the neighboring Heritage Trail and the Avenue Market across the street from Legends Park. For the first time in 40 years, a new entertainment club has opened in the area: Chopper's Tavern on Pennsylvania Avenue. The owner, Raymond Nelson, said he is trying to bring entertainment back to the neighborhood by featuring jazz artists and "giving back to new people."

The park is part of a larger $3 million revitalization plan that includes redoing Pennsylvania Avenue from Mosher to Gold streets, a new mural project and redevelopment of the Sphinx Club. The new park is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

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