Clay Street: Many now trying to restore a faded jewel in Annapolis Bulldozers took the vibrancy, left crime and despair Clay Street: RECIPE FOR REVIVAL

February 27, 1994|By Kris Antonelli and John A. Morris | Kris Antonelli and John A. Morris,Sun Staff Writers

Zastro Simms remembers Clay Street as the jewel of Annapolis' black community. Peggy Kimbo and her family were envious of the people who lived in the prosperous community where famous black personalities entertained standing-room-only crowds at nightclubs and hotels.

Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway played the Turk Lounge at the Dixie Hotel, one of the few venues in town that admitted blacks. Pearl Bailey once sent a friend of Mrs. Kimbo's out to buy 25 cents' worth of baloney and crackers.

"It was like a little New York," Mr. Simms, 59, says of the neighborhood he's lived in his whole life. "The area had a lot of black-owned businesses, restaurants, shoe shines, shops, hotels."

Mrs. Kimbo moved to the neighborhood with her husband in the 1960s. "For us, it was going uptown," she says.

But by the late 1970s, the neighborhood around Clay Street was declining rapidly. Homes and businesses were replaced by parking lots and office buildings. Families moved to housing projects on the edge of the city as urban renewal swept through.

Unfamiliar faces showed up on the streets as the community was splintered. The area lost its reputation as a center of black community and culture. Today's Clay Street is more apt to bring to mind images of parking lots, absentee landlords and street corner drug dealing.

But a trace of optimism is becoming evident, as city and community leaders have joined an effort at revival.

"What the area needs is some attention," said Alderman Carl Snowden, a longtime activist in the black community and a member of the revitalization committee. Attention from police to help curb crime, together with money and a revitalized business community, could bring back some of that hometown flavor the neighborhood once enjoyed.

Maybe Clay Street is coming full circle. In the latter part of the 19th century, Clay Street was a neighborhood of "Negro tenements," coal yards, pool halls and a single church on Northwest Street, wrote Mame Warren in her book, "Then Again . . . Annapolis, 1900-1965."

But by 1930, it had developed into an "elite" street of more than 200 houses, the Stanton School, two more churches, a movie house, county jail, three warehouses and the Baltimore & Annapolis Railroad depot.

"The blacks were really mostly well-to-do blacks for back in those days," Ms. Warren wrote. "They owned their houses down there. It was a beautiful street."

It was tidy and prosperous, but clearly segregated.

"It was a thriving community," said the Rev. Leroy Bowman, pastor at First Baptist Church on West Washington Street since 1943. "But the outside world really wasn't interested in us. I don't think people quite considered us their equal."

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Through the 1950s, residents shopped at Louie Levine's grocery store. They enjoyed night life at the Turk Club or the Star Theater, the only cinema in town that admitted blacks. People caught rides to jobs or other cities at the depot -- via train until 1950, when passenger service to Annapolis was stopped, and then by bus.

Former Alderman Roscoe Parker kept his offices on Clay Street, where he also made a living preparing tax returns.

Lena and Samuel Eisenstein allowed patrons to run up a tab at their Star Theater, which stood at the corner of Northwest and Calvert streets, where a parking lot now sits.

"We could go to the movies all week and mother would pay them Saturday night," said Mrs. Kimbo, 64, who now lives on College Avenue.

Mr. and Mrs. Eisenstein bought the theater in 1926, before movies had even learned to talk, their daughter, Anna E. Greenberg, recalls. The family lived in an apartment above the theater until Mrs. Greenberg was 7.

"Every year my father would give me a birthday party there," she remembered. "Every Thursday night was bank night. The customers would sign a ledger and at the end of the night, a number would be drawn out of a bowl. If your number was called and you were present, you received however much was in the bank. Sometimes it got as high as $300."

Mrs. Kimbo remembers going to the Brown's Hotel where her aunt, Carrie Chambers, worked as a barmaid.

"Aunt Carrie would give me a Coke and potato chips and we would watch the whole rehearsal," said Mrs. Kimbo, who wasn't old enough to attend the vaudeville shows that played almost nightly at Brown's.

Norman Randall, a varsity basketball player at Bates High

School, would gather with his friends outside the Elks lodge at the corner of Northwest and Calvert streets.

"It's 100 percent different today," said Captain Randall, now a member of the Annapolis Police Department. "If you take away the Arundel Center, the parking lots, those were all homes."

As recently as the early 1970s, Clay Street was still a vibrant

neighborhood where people felt safe.

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