A resurrection in Upton Market: The Avenue Market, which officially opens today, is the cornerstone of Lena Boone's tireless fight for her neighborhood.

December 14, 1996|By Marilyn McCraven | Marilyn McCraven,SUN STAFF

Lena Boone looks around her beleaguered Upton neighborhood and sees the fruit of 30 years of her labor: a school and recreation center where nightclubs used to be, and basketball and tennis courts in place of some derelict housing.

But the cornerstone of her generationlong effort to resurrect her beloved West Baltimore neighborhood is the renovated Avenue Market on Pennsylvania Avenue, which officially opens today.

"This is our Harborplace, the place where our people will come to shop, to eat. It's something we can be proud of," said Boone.

While it was the late developer James W. Rouse who had the idea of transforming the old Lafayette Market into the Avenue Market, Boone helped make it a reality, said city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III.

"Lena made sure time and again that nobody gave up on it," Henson said.

When Rouse was sidelined by illness late last year and unable to raise private funds for the market renovation, Boone pressed Henson to increase the city's stake in the market from $1.2 million to $1.9 million of the $4 million cost, Henson said.

"She called me every week for four weeks, and every time I said no," Henson said.

Eventually, "I went into my budget and found it," Henson said. "What was I going to do -- say no to Lena? Are you crazy?"

The Avenue Market project in the 1800 block of Pennsylvania Ave. may be the culmination for this 77-year-old "mayor of Upton," who succeeded Rouse to become chairwoman and president of the board of the market. She says she probably will step down in the coming months, turning over many of her duties to Allen Eason, 52, administrative assistant to the market's board and an Upton native.

Boone seems much younger than her years with her high energy and youthful looks that include wearing vivid colors.

Most weekdays, Boone signs checks, reviews contracts and completes other market-related tasks from her office in the building that houses the Upton Planning Committee in the 1300 block of Division St., across the street from her three-story rowhouse. The office walls are covered with awards and photographs of Boone with former Baltimore mayors: Theodore R. McKeldin, Thomas J. D'Alesandro III and William Donald Schaefer.

She says her background prepared her for the hard task of neighborhood organizing. She was born into grinding poverty in an alley house on Pierce Street in West Baltimore, where the Social Security Administration's downtown offices are now. As a child during the Depression, her family moved to what is now Upton.

She has vivid memories of storied Pennsylvania Avenue, which in its heyday in the 1930s and '40s was the cultural and economic hub of black Baltimore. She recalls watching a young Sammy Davis Jr. tap dance on the stage of The Avenue's Royal Theater and such celebrities as Ella Fitzgerald stroll into the Penn Hotel.

In the late 1950s, Boone was asked to begin working with a neighborhood improvement association. She soon became active with the Henry Highland Garnet Council, and was elected president of this amalgamation of West Baltimore block clubs.

In 1963, the beautician-turned factory worker promised to serve for a year, but then the club voted to make her job perpetual.

"If I had known they couldn't do that under the Constitution of the United States, I would have quit," Boone laughed.

The council evolved into the Upton Planning Committee.

Over the years, Boone's name became synonymous with Upton.

After the 1968 riot sparked by the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., she led the movement to win millions of dollars in federal aid to revitalize the area, as residents of neighboring Bolton Hill and Harlem Park had done.

A 184-acre section of West Baltimore was designated the urban renewal area of Upton, named for a century-old manor house on West Lanvale Street.

The key challenge was rebuilding the commercial core of Pennsylvania Avenue, which was left in rubble by the riot. It had been in decline since after World War II.

Boone was among those who saw that the dozen blocks of The Avenue that run through Upton could not be resurrected as an entertainment district. So, with the help of a city planner, her group made a plan for building schools, a senior citizens' high-rise and new low-rise housing for poor families.

Initial plans for a renovated Lafayette Market were delayed by construction of the subway line that runs underneath the market.

But the area's overall plans were delayed by the federal government, which reduced its emphasis on urban areas.

In 1970, Rouse planned to build 1,000 houses in Upton, but those plans were shelved in 1973 when President Richard M. Nixon put a moratorium on such federally financed construction, Boone said.

By the late '70s, the freeze had been lifted, but Rouse had gone on to other projects, Boone said.

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