BALTIMORE – On a Saturday afternoon, Gordon Garrett runs a rag across the surface of a Ford parked outside a block of houses on West Lanvale Street in west Baltimore?s Upton community.
He pointed to 802 Lanvale, where his parents moved in 1943. He recalls “Mr. Mitchell,” the schoolteacher who lived next door and gave him money to sweep sidewalks and cut grass. Two doors down, “Miss Robinson” lived with her preacher husband and filled her front and back yards with flowers.
“People brought their houses here because they looked for a good neighborhood. And in 1943 and 1942 and 1941, you couldn’t move but certain places,” Garrett, 75, said.
Just as in New York’s Harlem, housing segregation laid the foundation for what would become one of the country’s most vibrant black communities after World War I.
Bordered by Biddle Street on the south, Bloom Street on the north, Fremont Street on the west and McCulloh Street on the east, Upton began drawing black residents as whites migrated to Baltimore’s new northern suburbs around World War I.
Restrictive housing opportunities meant that black doctors, lawyers and teachers lived alongside blue-collar workers. And with blacks unable to shop and eat at downtown stores and restaurants, businesses followed them to Upton.
On Pennsylvania Avenue, the community’s commercial heart, nightclubs, cabarets, sit-down restaurants and specialty shops opened. Its clubs and theaters drew performers like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and the Temptations.
“I don’t care whether you’re black, white, Italian or whatever, you came to Pennsylvania Avenue for the fine food, you came for the fine restaurants, you came for the fine entertainment,” said James Hamlin, director of the Pennsylvania Avenue Redevelopment Collaborative, which oversees Pennsylvania Avenue’s Main Streets program.
“You name it, it was here, whether it was upscale booteries, upscale clothing, food, entertainment.”
Churches, schools and civic organizations also followed the migration of blacks to Upton.
The building that Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church occupied in 1898 stands as Baltimore’s oldest built by and for blacks, and the church’s membership once included Frederick Douglass.
In Upton’s famed Marble Hill section, Union Baptist Church constructed a $50,000 building in 1905 and became a major base in the civil rights movement.
On Division Street, a young Marshall walked three blocks from his home to elementary school. And long before Frederick Douglass High School moved from Carey and Baker streets to its current location near Mondawmin Mall, Calloway took voice lessons there as a student.
Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois were among the famous people who visited Upton to speak at churches. The neighborhood also became the location for the second-oldest NAACP branch in the country and the base for the Baltimore AFRO-American, one of the country’s most successful black newspapers.
Fraternal organizations like the Grand Order of Masons set up headquarters and chapters, as did organizations like the American Legion and the Arch Social Club.
“Yes, it was an African American segregated community … but it was a melting pot,” Hamlin said.
By the 1960s, however, the community fell victim to desegregation. As housing and shopping opportunities increased, middle-class blacks began to live and shop elsewhere. The flight accelerated after the riots that struck Baltimore following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
An attempt at renewal in the 1970s — with more than $26 million in federal, state and local aid — brought new housing, an elementary school and other projects, but failed to halt the decay.
According to the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, the 2000 population for Upton and neighboring Druid Heights stood at 10,404 and 69 percent of households in the community had an income of less than $25,000.
A master plan completed by community leaders in 2005 says that about 60 percent of families with children under 5 years old live in poverty.
But Hamlin is optimistic that Upton is poised for a renaissance, one built on the community’s history and the return of a stable middle class.
“We’re going to set the example as to how that’s going to happen, how that takes place, how we take a community that’s been neglected for over 30-something years and turn it into a thriving community where people want to live, want to work, can shop and enjoy themselves,” he said.