It is important to preserve history. Too many communities erase their roots in the name of callous revitalization. Long-time residents in Harlem a few years ago were right to protest the attempted renaming of part of the historic neighborhood to “SoHa,” in what seemed like a move away from the neighborhood’s rich African American and civil rights history. We also understand why just a few months ago natives of Washington, D.C., pushed so hard for the right of a local electronics store to play go-go music despite protests from newer residents not familiar with the musical genre steeped in local culture.
In Baltimore, the family of Cab and Blanche Calloway make valid arguments for trying to keep alive the memory of the great jazz musician by making sure people never forget he spent part of his childhood in a rowhouse at 2216 Druid Hill Ave. They want to transform the dilapidated, skeleton of a dwelling into some kind of landmark.
The idea is well-intentioned but not one that we think is the best solution for the neighborhood. We support a proposal by the Druid Heights Community Development Corp. and others in the community to tear the house down — as well as the rest of the block where it stands — and build a park where Calloway’s history in the neighborhood would be remembered.
No question, Calloway’s legacy should be recognized in a highly visible way for people to see generations from now. But his house and the rest of the 2200 block of Druid Hill Avenue have long been a problematic eyesore for the neighborhood. The Baltimore Sun worked on a video series with the children of the Druid Heights Community Development Corp. in 2014. We asked them what would make their neighborhoods better. Time and again, they said to get rid of the trash and the vacant houses.
Large swaths of vacant homes like the one where Calloway once lived are a nuisance to neighborhoods. They attract crime and squatters, and people tend to throw their trash in the front yards. Some children said they are scared to walk by them and that at night they look like a scene from a horror movie. Most troubling of all, the houses contribute to a perception in a neighborhood that people just don’t care.
One of the main priorities of the Druid Heights CDC has been to rid the neighborhood of vacant homes. These aren’t wealthy real estate investors and carpetbaggers coming in to rob the area for their own financial benefit. The community development corporation has worked for years to improve the neighborhood for its residents. Development of affordable housing is just one part of the mission of the organization, which also offers youth programs, re-entry programs for former inmates and housing services, such as counseling for people fighting off foreclosure. They are people who care about, and in many cases live in, the neighborhood. We trust their judgment.
There is not much of a physical structure left to the Calloway home. It would take a lot of work and a hefty amount of money to restore it. Something would have to do be done to the houses surrounding it as well, and someone would have to pay to maintain it. We don’t see anyone running to make that investment.
The plan by the city’s Department of Planning and the Druids Heights CDC to create Cab Calloway Square and integrate bricks from the house in its design is fine way to recognize him and create a safe and pleasant space for the residents of Druid Heights.
It wouldn’t be the first place to honor someone without the original structures. The Harriett Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, located on state park land with the same name, doesn’t include the plantation where she was enslaved. But it provides people with a rich history of the freedom fighter’s life and what it was like for her when she lived in Maryland. A park in Druid Heights, if done well, could do the same for Calloway, who was called the King of Hi-De-Ho and has said he got his musical start in Baltimore. His history should also be a part of the efforts in restoring the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor, a once thriving entertainment and retail center that was recently designated and official arts and entertainment district.
Baltimore’s Department of Housing and Community Development said there are no immediate plans for demolition and that they will follow the community’s lead.
The head of the Druid Heights CDC has said Calloway’s block and the houses surrounding it have been vacant since the unrest after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. That’s 51 years. You do the math. If there was a plan and financing in place to preserve the jazz musician’s home, we might be more inclined to support such an effort. Without those things in place, we don’t think the neighborhood should have to wait any longer.