by: Jordan Reth
Baltimore’s Westside has certainly worn many a hat in its day. Once a vibrant, bustling commercial center rivaling New York or Philadelphia, it was home to elite shopping centers such as Hutzlers and Hochschilds. It is home to some of the oldest professional schools in the country and the first dental school in the world. It was also the scene of some of the fiercest fallout of the 1968 Baltimore Riots and the bitter subject of drugs and violence on the shows, The Wire and The Corner.
Since the late 1990’s, Baltimore’s Westside has experienced a slow rebirth through investments and renovations. Our own school is a direct recipient of this effort, rebuilt in 2002 as project by Westside Renaissance, Inc., (WR) a privately funded non-profit group formed in 2000. WR brings together over 30 businesses, public agencies, and other non-profit organizations to revitalize the Westside on projects as diverse as restoration of the Bascilica of the Assumption to the renovation of the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Station. WR has partnered with the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC), the City’s economic development agency, in bringing business and retail to the area.
Yet, despite the focus of so many committed individuals and organizations, the revitalization is far from complete and many buildings remain shuttered and many available lots empty, collecting trash and weeds. The major economic recession may be to blame for stalling several of the restoration projects. Indeed the much talked about “Superblock” meant to provide a bridge of development between the University of Maryland, Baltimore Campus and the Charles Center had been stopped in it’s $150 million dollar tracks for nearly ten years due to various financial and legal issues. A City Council approved tax break in July of this year seems to have breathed new life into the Superblock project. The estimated $48 million dollar tax break under the City’s PILOT program is one of the largest tax breaks grantedin the City, second only to Marriott’s reported $61 million tax break. Representatives of the BDC fear it’s the only way the Superblock revitalizations will ever be realized.
Many of the non-financial concerns from renovations are the demolition of buildings that contain historical or culture significance. Within the proposed Superblock, the famous Read’s Drug Store resides. Read's is home to the Civil Rights Sit-in of 1955 - according to the NAACP, the first sit-in of its kind. UM Carey Law professor Larry S. Gibson, quoted in a Baltimore Brew article from January 2011 stated that Read's may lead to some rewriting of Civil Rights history. “The sit-in movement begins in Baltimore. It begins with Morgan [State University] and these students…. It begins with this Read’s Drug Store,” he said. “Which happens to be a national treasure.”
Largely in decay and without a roof, Read’s has been at the center of a legal battle between developers supported by City Hall and preservationists who are unhappy with plans to just save the building's façade, wanting to see it fully restored as a Civil Rights Museum.
Additionally, the Pickwick Theater, the Art-Deco McCrory Building, and the Schulte Five and Dime Store may be demolished to make way for more residential and commercial spaces.
A new task force has been created to reassess the revitalization projects, largely directed by the Mayor and Dr. Jay A. Perman, of the University of Maryland, Baltimore. The Mayor has stated that a condition of the tax break for developers is a focus on hiring local workers for the projects. With the approved uly tax break, development that was once on hold indefinitely should begin in earnest. The question remains - will some of the City's Historic Landmarks be sacrificed to give rebirth to Baltimore's Westside?