The Day Wilkens Avenue Almost Died

BACK TRACKS

April 07, 1991|By Carleton Jones

Community hassles are nothing new to old Baltimore, but in the old days they tended to revolve around simple things, not issues like abortion and drugs.

That's the way it was in the early spring of 1941. On March 25, West Baltimore residents awoke to read in their newspaper that Wilkens Avenue would become Crozier Boulevard, by City Council vote (16 ayes and 0 nays). A petition had asked for the change to honor Bernard "Bunny" Crozier, longtime chief engineer of the city and crony of Mayor Howard Jackson. (Bunny had died suddenly of peritonitis at age 48 in 1938 -- at the height of his career.)

Wilkens Avenue will "die," said the headlines.

The fact is someone had already been trying to fiddle with the street signs along the West Baltimore route. A Sixth District councilman in April of 1932 had proposed changing plain old Wilkens to more glamorous Sunset Boulevard. Area residents had long noted that the summer sun seemed to set at the end of their route.

The Evening Sun, in an editorial probably penned by H. L. Mencken, trumpeted its scorn of the proposed name change:

"To change the name of Wilkens Avenue to Sunset Boulevard would be to indulge in more of the namby-pamby, pretty-pretty nonsense that altered the musical and significant Merryman's Lane into the harsh and meaningless University Parkway and converted Hookstown Road into Pennsylvania Avenue."

The Sunset Boulevard proposal died a quick death.

Wilkens Avenue, opened in 1876, was by the 1930s a local institution as well as a major feeder of traffic to and from Washington. In the early part of the century it had featured clear streams, grassy fields and pewter statues for beautification, erected by industrialist William Wilkens, owner of an odoriferous factory nearby that turned out such products as horsehair (for sofa stuffing) and pigs' bristles (for brushes). Wilkens had deeded 33 acres and seven blocks of land to the city to create the street named for him.

When residents received the blow about renaming the street Crozier Boulevard, they fought back. A printing firm on the avenue printed 500 signs that read "This house is on Wilkens Avenue." They were distributed throughout the neighborhood and displayed along one of the longest unbroken blocks of houses in the world: Wilkens' splendid display of 1,200 feet of row housing.

The Maryland General Assembly entered the fray and on March 26 passed a resolution urging Baltimore's City Council to reconsider the Crozier change "in self defense." "The people are demanding somebody's scalp," stated state Delegate John Luber.

Nobody knew that better than Councilman Jerome Sloman, who had sponsored the original ordinance to repeal the old name.

The fact was, nobody was more worthy of rating a street name than Bunny Crozier. He'd been guiding the city's physical growth steadily and expertly since the World War I period and was one of the most trusted city officials of the 20th century.

He had been intimately involved in major city designs, such as the 29th Street bridge, the Howard Street extension that threaded across the tricky main U.S. north-south railroad line, and the Orleans Street viaduct. The Sun called him a man of "competence without question."

Within a few days of its proposal, the name-change ordinance, battered by letters, phone calls and other shows of civic outrage, was promptly killed.

It was Sloman who led the repeal of the ordinance that would have killed Wilkens Avenue forever. "It certainly wasn't any pet scheme of mine," he said. Actually, a Crozier buddy was behind the move.

Chagrined city councilmen could claim one gain from the silly business. "We saved $100 by not having to change the street signs," one said. *

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.