What to do with Read's

Our view: A Superblock memorial to the 1955 sit-ins doesn't necessarily have to be a museum

another site may be more appropriate for a large commemoration

November 25, 2011

The developers of the proposed Superblock on the west side of downtown have agreed not only to commemorate the 1955 sit-ins there that forced Baltimore's central shopping district to desegregate but also to retain two exterior walls of the old Read's building at Howard and Lexington streets where the protests occurred. Given how little of the original site remains, that is a reasonable compromise between the need to commemorate the past and build for the future. The project has been stalled for years by preservationists who oppose demolishing any of the area's historic architecture, and who invoke its civil rights legacy in their cause. But recent events demonstrate the degree to which their opposition is divorced from the present-day needs of the community.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake recently appointed a 13-member commission to work with the developers on a suitable memorial. Last week, the panel was supposed to meet with neighborhood activists to discuss the project, but at the appointed hour only a handful of people showed up.

Whether the commission failed to adequately publicize the event, as some charged, or whether people were simply distracted by the approaching holidays, the poor response only adds to the delay in resolving how to proceed with the proposed memorial, and further delays a key investment in downtown.

The result of all this waiting has been the continued decline and decay of a once-vibrant neighborhood that could be a lively retail and entertainment destination again if redevelopment took hold. It's time for the city to break this logjam and move forward with a plan that both honors the important role the area played in the civil rights movement and allows the city to proceed with the economic revitalization of the downtown's west side without further delay.

No one disputes the historical importance of the former Read's lunch counter, where one of the country's earliest sit-ins took place. Led by students from what is now Morgan State University, the protests provided a model for later demonstrations around the country. People old enough to remember the humiliating indignity of being turned away from a lunch counter or denied access to a department store fitting room because of their color have every right to want to see that struggle commemorated on the site where it occurred.

But the crumbling building once occupied by Read's has been vacant for years, and none of its original interior — including the lunch counter — remains intact. Moreover, the prospects for its ever being restored to anything like its previous condition appear virtually nil.

Lexington Square Partners, the development group, wants to tear down most of the existing buildings on the parcel bounded by Park Avenue and Lexington, Howard and Fayette streets and replace them with a modern mix of office, residential and retail spaces. Its plan would retain only the two exterior walls of the old Read's building on the corner of Lexington and Howard streets, but the company has promised to work with local activists to create a suitable memorial to the site's civil rights past.

Our view has been that while the redeveloped Lexington Square should incorporate some meaningful acknowledgment of the site's civil rights legacy, it need not be a formal museum, as some advocates have suggested. To do justice to the full historical import of the 1955 sit-in would likely require the kind of extended discussion much better suited to a dedicated institution such as the Maryland Historical Society or the Reginal F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History and Culture.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake and the commission she appointed have said they are committed to seeing this project honoring Baltimore's civil rights struggle through to fruition. Given that pledge, we think the city is more than capable of coming up with a plan that balances the desire to preserve an important part of the city's historical legacy with the need to expedite the revitalization of western downtown. Every civil rights advance doesn't need to be commemorated with its own separate museum.

Moreover, to have a private developer willing to prominently display its recognition of an important piece of history through a commercial project is itself a powerful statement. It signals that the story of the struggle for equal opportunity and justice, so central to the American creed, is one everyone should celebrate, not just museums and historical societies — and to do so in ways that engage people's everyday lives, just as lunch counters once did. That is the kind of step Americans increasingly will have to take if we are to tell all our stories in ways that resonate.

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