It’s demo time for the rowhouse where legendary bandleader Cab Calloway grew up as a Baltimore teenager, city officials have confirmed to The Brew.
Despite the COVID-19 outbreak, which has temporarily stopped many government projects, the teardown of the 2200 block of Druid Hill Avenue could start as early as today, says Tammy Hawley, spokesperson for Baltimore Housing and Community Development (HCD).
“Work in the field is continuing as planned,” she said in response to emailed questions. “The exact start date is not set, but the work could start as early as March 30th.”
BREAKING NEWS – CITY DELAYS DEMOLITION
3 p.m. March 30: Jason Hessler, deputy commissioner for permits and litigation, said HCD “will not begin demolition of [the Cab Calloway house] at this time.” He informed attorney John C. Murphy that the agency will set up “a virtual hearing process” after receiving an appeal from Peter Brooks, Calloway’s grandson, who said the demolition permit violates the Druid Heights Urban Renewal Plan and the Old West Baltimore Historic District.
After Marti Pitrelli, a local historic researcher, traced back 2216 Druid Hill Avenue to the childhood home of the bandleader, members of the Calloway family and others urged city officials to spare the house and turn it into a museum or sound studio to commemorate West Baltimore’s role in the development of jazz and other popular music.
Young Calloway, they argue, picked up swing, blues, scat singing, modern dance and other influences from the clubs that thrived along Pennsylvania Avenue, two blocks from the house he lived in with his parents and musical sister, Blanche, between 1915 and 1923.
He then turned those influences into the big band music of the 1930s that breached the color line and produced such international hits as “Minnie the Moocher,” says his grandson, Peter Brooks.
“Cab and Blanche Calloway gave the world an awful lot of pleasure, but they never got true recognition in their own hometown,” Brooks says.
“Because they were not white and came from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ is why, I believe, their Baltimore beginnings have been ignored for so long. And now they are about to be erased from the face of the earth.”
Peter Brooks says his grandfather’s music and choreography in songs like “Minnie the Moocher,” “Hey Now, Hey Now” and “Two Blocks Down, Turn to the Left” were inspired by the people and culture he observed as a Baltimore teenager.
CHAP Backs Away
A petition drive and other efforts to stop the demolition were rebuffed by Baltimore Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman, who has said he is acting on the “community’s wishes.”
In this case, the community is the Druid Heights Community Development Corporation, a semi-public entity that wants to clear the block to make way for a new park – to be named the Cab Calloway Legends Park.
Jacquelyn Cornish, a founding member of DHCDC and a deputy housing commissioner under Mayor Sheila Dixon, says the block is the eyesore that holds back her group’s efforts to revitalize the area.
An appeal to the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) to place the house on its potential landmark list, which would protect the building from demolition for 180 days, failed.
Health Risks Cited
Pitrelli argues that Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan should halt the demolition on health grounds given the city’s state of emergency.
“Citizens are quarantined by the virus pandemic, and all non-essential construction has been ordered to cease,” she said in an email. “There is no way to safely demolish 100 train cars full of potentially lead-filled and toxic debris during an outbreak of a dangerous infectious lung disease.”
The demolition, under contract to K&K Adams, calls for the razing of 14 large brick and stone-trimmed rowhouses, all of which are vacant and under city ownership.
The city is supposed to test for asbestos before a building is demolished, but it is unclear whether the 2200 block has been examined for lead paint and other potentially contaminated material inside the heavily deteriorated buildings. (The roof of the Calloway house, for example, has collapsed, and its windows are either smashed open or boarded up.)
Hawley said the average cost of tearing down a rowhouse is $23,000, making the cost of the demolition of the 14 buildings at least $322,000.
That’s on top of the $319,000 HCD spent to buy the buildings from private owners in the first place.
A Brick Remembrance
Funding for the demolition comes directly from Baltimore City, rather than from Project C.O.R.E., a city-state partnership established to tear down vacant houses in East and West Baltimore.
A full block of rowhouses usually takes about two months to be cleared, the debris removed, and the site graded and seeded.
After that point, city crews and the Office of Sustainability are supposed to maintain the vacant lots. Attempts to reach members of the office, a division of the Baltimore Department of Planning, were unsuccessful.
The plan is to turn the land, bounded by Druid Hill Avenue, Gold Street, Division Street and Baker Street, into a park. Last week, the Board of Estimates allocated $36,134 to acquire 10 lots from private owners along Gold and Etting streets.
Cornish estimates the cost of a new park at $5 million to $10 million. Preliminary design work for the park has been completed, but city funds have yet to be allocated.
Cornish and Anthony Pressley, executive director of the DHCDC, said a few hundred bricks, saved from the Calloway house, will be incorporated into either an archway or a path leading into the park.