James Hamlin likes to say, "It's not about the rolls," insisting that the next big thing on Baltimore's historic Pennsylvania Avenue — his Avenue Bakery — is about commitment to your community and respect for its heritage. It's about being a role model to others who dream of owning a small business.
And that's all grand and admirable. But most people are just going to nod when Mr. Hamlin says, "It's not about the rolls," because they'll be too busy eating them to argue.
Same for Mattie's Muffins, named after Mr. Hamlin's mother and made from sweet potato, apples, walnuts and raisins. "It's not about the muffins," Mr. Hamlin might say, and when he does, just nod and keep chewing.
He might be a longtime leader in the effort to restore Pennslyvania Avenue to its former glory, but James Hamlin is also a pretty good baker.
For a long time, he thought about developing an office building on The Avenue, once a busy west-side neighborhood and the center of African-American life in Baltimore, the home of the famous Royal Theatre. Mr. Hamlin, who grew up nearby, has been involved in the planning of Pennslyvania Avenue's rebirth for years.
But when his idea for an office building did not get city approval, he fell back on something that always had been on his mind: opening a bakery.
There hasn't been a bakery — nor many other things — on Pennsylvania Avenue since the 1960s.
Mr. Hamlin had been baking pull-apart, cloverleaf dinner rolls for years, using a recipe from his grandmother and mother. He baked them for family and for friends at the holidays. As head of the Royal Theatre and Community Heritage Corp., he brought them to meetings and people pretty much inhaled them.
Word got around about James Hamlin's dinner rolls. A few years ago, a Baltimore sorority invited him to be a guest chef in a charity cookoff. He did what he does best — baked a batch of dinner rolls — and women swooned. At some events, Mr. Hamlin says, women, in particular, express reluctance to eat his rolls, concerned about the carbs. But, he says, once one person partakes, the dominos fall, and he's never left a party with leftovers.
So, convinced he can make something the world will want, Mr. Hamlin invested in a bakery. It's at the corner of Pennsylvania and Baker, on the site of what used to be Baker's Hardware. The grand opening is a week from Monday.
"But it's not just about the rolls," Mr. Hamlin says, and you believe him because this man has been involved in the effort to restore Pennsylvania Avenue since the 1990s. He's one of several people who, working through the Community Heritage Corp. and the Pennsylvania Avenue Redevelopment Collaborative, are pushing for new homes and businesses, along with new respect for The Avenue's heritage.
There's a whole generation, maybe two, that grew up around Baltimore with a detached understanding of Pennsylvania Avenue as a violent, drug-infested neighborhood of liquor stores and carryouts, abandoned homes and vacant lots. Those generations knew nothing of the Royal and the famous artists — Eubie Blake, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday — who performed there, from the Jazz Age through the 1960s. They knew nothing of the black middle class that shopped along The Avenue back in the day.
Motivated by nostalgia and civic pride, Mr. Hamlin and others decided that 30 years of official neglect was enough. They got to work. They pushed to get the drug dealers off the corners. Community leaders from Druid Heights, Sandtown Winchester, Penn North and Upton helped develop a master plan. New homes started to go up, some of them just around the corner from the new bakery.
The CHC also established the Pennsylvania Avenue Heritage Trail, marking, among other sites, the home of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and the Lillie Carroll Jackson Museum. Last September, Mr. Hamlin's group organized the first Pennsylvania Avenue Weekend Homecoming Festival. There's another scheduled for Sept. 9-11, including a Saturday Cadillac parade and battle of the bands.
The Avenue Bakery will be opening just in time. Mr. Hamlin will offer his grandmother's dinner rolls, white or whole wheat and known as "Poppay's Rolls." (Poppay is what Mr. Hamlin's grandchildren call him.) He'll bake cinnamon and apple buns and muffins. Customers will be able to walk up to an order window and, eventually, sit at tables in a courtyard. The bakery's interior will be adorned with smartly produced wall hangings that present Pennsylvania Avenue history. You'll be able to watch a documentary film about the neighborhood while waiting for your order, too.
So, all right. It's not just about the rolls. Let's not argue. Let's eat.