Pa. Avenue of the past is his vision for future

October 07, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

James Hamlin still sees Pennsylvania Avenue in all its tumultuous splendor. This makes him a great visionary, or a sentimental dreamer. Or both. In his mind's eye, a kid named Little Stevie Wonder's opening at the Royal Theatre. The Temptations are strolling down the street, and the Four Tops are pausing to get their shoes shined, and Redd Foxx is still showing up to convulse audiences with laughter.

Pennsylvania Avenue is in West Baltimore. Hamlin lives in Sykesville. That's some long-distance vision he has.

He is 57 years old and left West Baltimore back in 1976. First it was whites leaving the city as fast as they could, and then middle-class blacks. Hamlin remembers the first exodus, and he was part of the second. What was left behind, in places such as Pennsylvania Avenue, was a shambles. Some of it still exists.

Hamlin knows he can't exactly bring back the past. But he has a pretty strong sense of history, a lingering affection for his old section of town, and a businessman's sense that maybe the time has arrived to bring new life to Pennsylvania Avenue, and to the Royal Theatre, gone since its tattered remains were demolished in 1971.

Now retired after 35 years in management at UPS, Hamlin heads the Royal Theatre and Community Heritage Corp., a group of businesspeople and community activists energized by a sense of nostalgia as well as a desire for profit.

They've watched so many sections of the city that have sprung back to life in recent years and are asking a question many have long felt was preposterous: Why not Pennsylvania Avenue?

If you went through there yesterday, you had the usual answers: vacant, rotted buildings, grinding poverty. In a gentle morning rain, half a dozen teenagers stood near a Chinese carry-out long after the start of school. An old woman pushed a rickety shopping cart filled with her belongings across a vacant lot. Some men outside a check-cashing operation shared a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag. When the middle class was leaving, these were the people who became the leftover class.

But, in some ways, Pennsylvania Avenue is a comeback area trying to outlive a bruising but slightly outdated reputation. Long ago the commercial and cultural heart of black Baltimore - with its legendary nightclubs, its shops and markets, and musicians dating to Louis Armstrong and Nat "King" Cole performing at the Royal Theatre when it was part of the so-called "Chitlin Circuit" - the area was then staggered repeatedly: by the 1968 riots and the business exodus that followed; by crippling drug traffic and the crime and family breakdown it produced; and then by black middle class flight. For a long time, it's been a symbol of urban angst.

But there are strengths here, too: the Lafayette Market, the energy of the business strip just above it, the organized youth activities, the neighborhood churches and some strips of relatively new housing that replaced some of the hopelessly decayed old buildings.

Now, says Hamlin, the time is right for a larger comeback.

"It's not just about bringing back the Royal Theatre," he says. "But that's the symbol of the rebirth. It's part of the history, and a chance to provide jobs and opportunities and pride. But the real goal is bringing back the heritage of this community, the culture, the showcasing of talent, the political strength."

The last still strikes a chord with older generations. This, after all, is the area of Baltimore that produced Thurgood Marshall and Kweisi Mfume, the Mitchell family, the Murphy family.

"Today," says Hamlin, "you look at the African-American community in Baltimore, we're all over the place. There's no centerpiece where we say, `This is ours,' where you feel a unity and a sense of pride. There are real signs of life around here. The shells of houses that were going for $5,000 a few years ago, they're going for $75,000 now."

Hamlin has no illusions about rebuilding the Royal Theatre at its old location at Pennsylvania and Lafayette. The location's a ball field now, with a stately "Royal" marquee out front to remind people of its former life, and a Police Athletic League headquarters next to it. Hamlin says neighbors want to keep it that way.

But he's looking at nearby locations for a new Royal Theatre, and says he's purchased land several blocks north on Pennsylvania Avenue for an office building that would house a banquet hall and commercial space.

"I grew up here," Hamlin says, "when you saw doctors and lawyers and teachers in the neighborhood. There were lots of professional people you could look up to and emulate. You learned a work ethic. I worked at a grocery store after school and on Saturdays. I could buy my own tennis shoes. I learned to clean fish, cut up chickens, all kinds of things.

"Our young people don't have those kinds of opportunities now, not in this neighborhood. The businesses aren't there the way they were. But people are moving back into the city. I'm looking for a place myself. And businesses are moving back. The Royal Theatre could be a centerpiece in West Baltimore."

He remembers seeing Little Stevie Wonder there, and the Four Tops and the Temptations, too. It was a long time ago. But, from all the way out there in Sykesville, Hamlin can see a new generation arriving on Pennsylvania Avenue. He's a great visionary, or a sentimental dreamer. Or both.

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