Rebirth of The Avenue

Renaissance: Jazz brings together community undergoing revitalization.

June 20, 1999|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF


An article in Sunday's Maryland section describing the Historic Cadillac Parade on Pennsylvania Avenue did not mention the group that staged the event. It was organized by the Pennsylvania Avenue Committee, led by Chairman George Gilliam. The committee also sponsored a gospel, jazz and rhythm-and-blues festival at Robert C. Marshall Field after the parade. The article incorrectly reported that a separate Saturday event, Cool Jazz on the Avenue, was scheduled to continue Sunday. It was not. The Sun regrets the omissions and the error.

A flotilla of gas guzzlers ferrying politicians and power-brokers cruised down the center line of Pennsylvania Avenue yesterday in the Historic Cadillac Parade. Marchers with the Edmondson Village Steppers, the Bazemore Bandits and the Charm City Charmers pounded drums, flung hips and gyrated in sync.

People thronged the sidewalks and intersections for blocks in either direction for the Father's Day weekend event.

And there at the front of the four-deep crowd was Tessa Hill-Aston, hugging, patting and waving at everyone she knew -- which meant just about everyone around.

"This is fantastic!" said the 49-year-old city housing official, wearing black capri pants, a T-shirt and holding a walkie-talkie.

Hill-Aston was excited, and not just because she belonged to a Cherry Hill marching group as a child. She is the godmother of efforts to revive Pennsylvania Avenue, once the center of Baltimore's African-American culture. And yesterday's crowd was another sign that the commercial strip once known as The Avenue is on its way back.

A line of strollers was parked along the curb near the Upton Metro stop. Spectators danced in front of the T&M Restaurant and Carryout.

Two men leaned out of third-floor windows above the Murry's Steaks shop on Pennsylvania near Laurens Street. Hill-Aston pointed at them gleefully. "I haven't seen those windows open, ever," she said.

Later, couples swayed to the rhythm-and-blues of Bobby Rucks Group on a stage just behind the Metro entrance, as part of an event called "Cool Jazz on The Avenue."

The free, live music resumes at 2 p.m. today.

For years, Pennsylvania Avenue has struggled against trash, drugs and crime. But before the 1960s, The Avenue was a center of commerce and night life, home to the Royal Theater, the Lucky Number Club and the exclusive Sphinx Club. American jazz greats performed in these precincts: Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.

When desegregation permitted African-Americans to move out of the inner city, The Avenue began its slide. By 1969, said Bill Coleman, a collector of jazz memorabilia, the music had mostly stopped.

After the city and state spent $3 million renovating the old Lafayette Market into the Avenue Market in 1997, Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III dispatched Hill-Aston to make sure the project succeeded. When she arrived, she found some empty stalls and several merchants on the brink of closing up shop.

So she organized Friday evening jazz and rhythm-and-blues concerts at the rechristened city market and persuaded merchants to stay open later. The concerts have drawn as many as 2,000 people to stages inside and outside the market building.

Some merchants in the market say their business is up 50 percent.

"Tessa kept me here," said Cliff Kidwell, the stocky proprietor of Shuckers on the Avenue, a seafood stand. "Without her, this would have been a real hard struggle. But Friday nights have kept me going."

Initially, Hill-Aston and others were nervous about security. But, she says, there has never been any trouble at the concerts.

"It's a place where people can come and bring their kids and not be threatened by anybody," said market merchant Michael Hammond.

Hill-Aston's work goes beyond music. With community and city leaders, she has arranged for the installation of 40 old-fashioned lamp posts near the market. She is helping merchants plan to erect new facades on businesses in the 1800 block of The Avenue. And she's trying to bring artists to paint murals on blank walls.

This work takes money, of course, and she is always looking to raise more. During a trip to Seattle, she was enchanted by a big bronze pig in the city's waterfront market, where tourists drop coins used to pay for market promotion. Now, she's hunting for an artist to create a similar sculpture, maybe a larger-than-life saxophone, for the market's front door.

When it comes to taking on big challenges, Hill-Aston has a simple strategy: "I'm a firm believer in a positive attitude. My philosophy is to bring excitement, and maybe people can make changes."

Her husband, Joseph Aston, a former banker, was at the parade, watching from the curb as his wife hugged politicians and joked with friends. "She runs at a high speed at all times," he said.

Riding in a red Cadillac convertible at the front of the parade was William L. "Little Willie" Adams, the legendary West Baltimore political figure, who once ran The Club Casino nightclub. Aston-Hill said Adams is planning to open a new club on The Avenue soon, The Royal Casino.

A group of business people also is planning to erect a memorial to The Royal Theater, razed 28 years ago, in the 1300 block of Pennsylvania Ave.

The Avenue Market's Friday evening concerts are, of course, come-as-you-are affairs. But in November, Hill-Aston hopes to throw a formal fund-raiser. The event would recapture some of the elegance of The Sphinx and The Royal, if only for one glittering evening:

"It can be like it used to be."

Pub Date: 6/20/99

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