Confronted by the vacant rowhouse slated for destruction on Druid Hill Avenue, Peter Brooks is filled with conflicting emotions
Pride and hope mingle with sadness and frustration as the 53-year-old peers at the boarded-up windows and the ominous “white X” on the front of the childhood home of Cab Calloway. Turning away, he ticks off some of the accomplishments of his grandfather:
• the release of “Minnie the Moocher,” the first million-sales single by a black musician that helped crack America’s color barrier;
• a gifted dancer who introduced “the moonwalk long before Michael Jackson”;
• a cultural trendsetter who popularized words like hip, jive, cat and dig in his Hepster’s Dictionary, published in 1938, and who was credited with naming New York City “The Big Apple.”
Cabell “Cab” Calloway III (1907-1994) was a product of Baltimore. He lived in the Druid Hill house from 1915 to 1922 or 1923, learning musical composition from the gifted W. Llewellyn Wilson while practicing the art of winning over a crowd as a stable boy at the Pimlico Racetrack.
The musical prodigy lived elsewhere in Baltimore before graduating from Frederick Douglass High School, but the teenage years he spent in the heart of Baltimore’s segregated West Side formed the core of his aesthetic sensibility, his grandson argues.
“People should be able to come from all over the world and have a genuine Baltimore jazz experience at a place like this,” Brooks said last Sunday while passing out a pamphlet he wrote titled, “Who was Cab Calloway?”
Reggie Owens Sr. stops to talk. “It brings tears to my eyes,” he says, pointing to the ramshackle houses. “My aunt and grandma were involved trying to turn this neighborhood around,” he laments. “It’s been negative here for so long. We got to do something.”
“Well, here’s an idea – a museum to document and celebrate the life of Cab Calloway,” Brooks replies. “And if Cab is not enough, you’ve got Billie Holiday, Chick Webb, Eubie Blake, and, by extension, Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzie Gillespie. All of ’em associated with Baltimore!”
A Similar Fate?
While some of the elements are in place, such as the Eubie Blake Cultural Center on Howard Street, there is nothing, according to Brooks, that pulls together the story of the city’s important contributions to jazz and places it at its once-pulsating heart in West Baltimore.
Pennsylvania Avenue’s Royal Theatre, where Calloway first heard swing and blues notes and returned to over and over again as a headliner, is now an isolated marquee framed by a brick arch surrounded by a grassy lot.
At present, the marquee is plastered with the names of three city councilmen.
Current plans call for saving 100 bricks and the marble steps from the Cab Calloway house.
The Calloway family home at 2216 Druid Hill Avenue seems destined to suffer a similar fate.
It is one of 14 dilapidated rowhouses, built in the 1890s, that are owned by Baltimore and scheduled to be torn down under the state-financed Project C.O.R.E. program.
The plan, still in an embryonic stage, is to establish a “Cab Calloway Square” across 2.7 acres of mostly cleared land bounded by Division Street on the west, Baker Street on the north, Gold Street on the south and Druid Hill Avenue on the east.
“I spent a lot of my time in that rough and raucous Baltimore Negro night life with loud music, heavy drinking and the kind of moral standards or lack of them that my parents looked down on. I managed pretty well in both of these worlds, I suppose, because I was accustomed to thinking for myself.”
– From Calloway’s 1976 autobiography, Of Minnie the Moocher and Me.
While grateful that the proposed park will be named after his grandfather, Brooks says he is deeply disappointed by the demolition plans.
“We got to focus our priorities and ask, what will best bring economic development to West Baltimore – tearing down a house of a musical legend or restoring it as a destination for jazz lovers and tourists?” he says.
Marti Pitrelli, who lives on lower Druid Hill Avenue and fought against the razing of the “Freedom House” by Bethel AME Church, also sees historical preservation as an economic catalyst for the Westside.
“Homeowners should be placed in this rehabbed block to oversee this very large planned park. And Cab’s home is needed to display the Calloway Memorial Collection stored at Coppin State University,” she recently wrote on Facebook.
“Outsiders” to Blame
Saving the Calloway house from the wrecking ball was curtly dismissed by Anthony Pressley, executive director of the Druid Heights Community Development Corp., a key player in the park plan.
After saying that the community was “100% behind” the house demolition, Pressley acknowledged yesterday that there was some opposition. He described those critics as “outsiders” who are “raising noise just when something good is coming to the community.”
“Miss Marti Pitrelli,” he asserted, “came up with this idea about the Cab Calloway house. And she does not live in this community.” When told that she lives nearby, Pressley said, “Washington is nearby.”
In any event, he said, the property’s future is in the hands of the housing department. “Anyone who has a beef about [the demolition] should take it up with the city, not with us. We’re convinced by the city that they won’t leave a big hole in the community, but there will be some investment into this square.”
Current plans call for saving 100 bricks and the marble steps from the Calloway house and incorporating them into the design of the park, Pressley said.
There is also a plan to attach gold-plated tags on trees planted in the park, which would list famous people who have lived in the community.
“There are a lot of ways to hold onto precious memories besides keeping up dilapidated buildings,” Pressley said, pointing to a poster display that commemorates Calloway and Eubie Blake at Druid Hill and North avenues.
Brooks says he believes the Druid Heights CDC is selling the community short by not seizing the opportunity presented by the discovery that his grandfather lived in the house.
A Washington native who now works in Baltimore, Brooks cites the success of other cities in drawing music fans to their heroes.
Graceland Mansion in Memphis may be the most famous mecca for “the ultimate Elvis fan,” he says, but there are many other examples – the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Center, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Motown Museum in Detroit, National Jazz Museum in Harlem – where musical tourism has become a big business.
A jazz museum could be developed around the Calloway house, Brooks says, helping to stem the economic decline that he witnessed as a communications teacher at Coppin State University.
At the time of its final sale, the housing department issued a violation notice to itself, declaring the property “uninhabitable.”
A prime example of the decline is the former Calloway house. The real estate bubble of the early 2000s led to a rise in the property’s price, but not its upkeep.
After being sold to speculators for $30,000 in 2006, the house was given up for delinquent taxes in 2009 after the the property market burst.
The city sold the building to Ibraham Hegazi for $1,146.51 in 2010, according to land records, only to repurchase it six years later for $7,040.
At the time of the sale, the housing department issued a violation notice to itself, declaring the property “uninhabitable” and ordering its rehabilitation or demolition.
Right now, the only sign of the building’s history is “CAB CALLOWAY” scrawled on a piece of paper pinned to a boarded-up window.
Presenting Our Own History
Like the other city-owned houses on the 2200 block of Druid Hill, the roof has collapsed and rainfall and freezing temperatures have warped and rotted out much of its interior, according to Pressley.
“I don’t know how much sense it makes to tear down a dozen properties and keep one standing as a museum. But,” he added, “if you or anyone else can find money to fix that house up, we will fight for it with everything we got.”
Jahi Faw, director of youth programs for West Baltimore’s venerable Arch Social Club, says he doesn’t have a magic wand to buy and rehabilitate the house, but he believes such a project deserves serious consideration from City Hall and discussion by the community.
“We need to preserve and present the narrative of our own history,” Faw told The Brew. “That’s why the Arch Social Club supports Peter Brooks and his idea of developing a museum to keep Cab’s spirit alive.”