Orchard Street Church Renaissance

ANTERO PIETILA

November 07, 1992|By ANTERO PIETILA

For a decade and a half, efforts to rescue the old Orchard Street Methodist Church were a seemingly never-ending saga of false starts and frustrations. But when the Baltimore Urban League decided to acquire the badly vandalized landmark for its new headquarters, it injected enough credibility and clout to get things moving.

Now that the $3.7 million restoration has been completed, it is heartening to report that the result is nothing short of spectacular.

''I think we are going to be an anchor for the whole Druid Hill Avenue corridor,'' says Urban League president Roger I. Lyons.

The Urban League's Orchard Street complex will give new visibility to an area that has long housed important black institutions, from the Afro-American Newspapers to the Arena Players. A dozen leading black churches and a mosque are within walking distance; so are civil rights shrines connected with the Jackson and Mitchell families.

The restoration also should draw renewed attention to the communities north of Druid Hill Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard. During the 1920s and 1930s, these thriving neighborhoods were ''to Baltimore what Harlem was to New York,'' as one resident put it.

Before World War II, it was where Baltimore's black elite lived. And indeed there was a time when the corridor from Druid Hill Park to Orchard Street Church (between Druid Hill Avenue and Madison avenues) was a veritable Who's Who of black Baltimore.

''They used to call it Sugar Hill,'' says Walter R. Carr Sr., long-time publisher of Nightlifer, who still lives in the same house he was born in 78 years ago.

Thurgood Marshall grew up a few doors away from Mr. Carr's house. Tom Smith, the legendary Democratic boss, lived across the street.

''There was everything professional -- lawyers, doctors, educators, those who were formally trained -- housekeepers, house men, shipyard workers and steel workers,'' Mr. Carr remembers.

During the urban renewal craze of the 1970s, much of Pennsylvania Avenue -- the segregation-era shopping district that was home to black Baltimore's legendary theaters and night clubs -- was demolished and rebuilt. The adjoining residential neighborhoods remained intact, however, and many of them now are threatened by crime and urban blight.

Yet two residential neighborhoods south of North Avenue -- Madison Park and Marble Hill -- are experiencing a renaissance.

A predominantly Jewish neighborhood at the turn of the century, Madison Park became one of the first black middle-class neighborhoods in Baltimore. Its big, turn-of-the-century town houses were rediscovered in the 1970s by a new generation of young black professionals, many of whom are today among Baltimore's movers and shakers.

Marble Hill is of more recent vintage as a restored neighborhood. Yet in the past six years, this officially designated historic district has grown from four to 11 blocks in area (denoted by yellow markers placed above street signs).

''We call these houses old ladies; we are protective of them,'' says Marion McGaskey-Blackwell, who leads the restoration ,X effort with her husband, William.

The Blackwells -- she is a social worker, he a city inspector -- moved to Marble Hill 15 years ago because of the neighborhood's proximity to the Maryland Institute, Lyric Theater and and Meyerhoff Symphony Hall -- and because they could buy a Victorian town house similar to those in Bolton Hill for a fraction of the cost. Later they became captivated by the area's mother lode of black history.

''We call it a microcosm of black America,'' Mrs. McGaskey-Blackwell said. ''A Ph.D. may be living next to a welfare recipient.''

Unlike many gentrified restoration neighborhoods, Marble Hill is not a wealthy community.

But Mrs. McGaskey-Blackwell feels that it is important that an economically and socially diverse black community like Marble Hill -- named for its gleaming front steps -- has obtained designation as a historic district and is taking steps to safeguard its heritage.

''It's odd. In many instances people moving here are grandchildren of those who used to live in Marble Hill,'' Mrs. McGaskey-Blackwell says. ''Marble Hill is a symbol. It's a survivor.''

She thinks the restored Orchard Street Church will be an important symbol for the wider community.

''I think it is the tie that will bind us together,'' she says.

Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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