Picturing The Black Arts District

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Every day, Kenneth Morrison leaves their office, passes the liquor store, and sees people struggling with addiction. It’s a reminder of how decades of disinvestment—fueled by racist housing practices like redlining and blockbusting—have spawned urban blight along Pennsylvania Avenue, which used to be an epicenter for Black art and entertainment businesses during the early to mid-20th century. Not so long ago, Morrison said, the region was “a prominent space that prominent Black creatives thrived in.” 

Morrison’s jaw dropped when they learned—in their capacity as director of programs for the Pennsylvania Avenue Black Arts and Entertainment District—that the liquor store used to be a comedy club. “Now, I walk past slowly,” they said. “I imagine, or I reimagine, what could be.”

Today, there are fewer and fewer folks who can remember the neighborhood in its heyday, which is why in fall 2021, the Black Arts District launched the Historical Photography Project (HPP), an online library of photos and oral histories, seeking to ensure that the cultural memory of the Avenue isn’t forgotten or erased. The community-driven initiative was partly inspired by artist and organizer Ada Pinkston, whose work reimagines the idea of monuments.


Baltimore's Billie Holiday statue on Pennsylvania Avenue by James Earl Reid

One literal monument to the Avenue’s cultural memory: An eight-and-a-half-foot bronze statue of Billie Holiday by James Earl Reid standing in Upton. The famed Royal Theater once stood across from the striking monument—Holiday performed there, as did fellow Black jazz and blues stars.

Through the HPP, the Black Arts District set out to construct more monuments. The team—until recently helmed by art historian and writer Angela N. Carroll—has used a number of approaches including partnerships with archivists, visual and performance artists, and educational and cultural organizations. They’ve also held community meetings and storytelling events to collect photos and stories about Black achievement in West Baltimore.

“Sometimes we collect them, sometimes it’s just a moment for community to come together, remember, and soak that in,” Morrison said. “And then we encourage everyone to bring photos with their families or people who lived, worked, and played on Pennsylvania Avenue.”

“There’s something rich about holding onto heritage. A lot is lost when you forget where you come from. A lot is lost when you forget the shoulders you’re standing on.”


Additionally, the Black Arts District implemented curricula about the history of local Black accomplishment and entrepreneurship in a handful of schools citywide, inspiring around 300 students to collect stories from their grandparents and other elders in their communities.

“We believed it was really important to capture the stories, faces, and images of the people who made West Baltimore, West Baltimore,” said Morrison, who emphasized that this includes the everyday individual: the person who cut everyone’s grass or the person who drove the neighborhood kids to school. “We are going to be doing a series of creative placemaking experiences throughout Pennsylvania Avenue to pay homage to these people.”

Due to limited funding, Carroll said, the Black Art District’s plans to create murals and photography installations based on these cultural memories at sites along the Avenue by summer 2023 did not come to fruition. Morrison said that the Black Arts District is focusing on continuing to collect stories, which was additionally made difficult by the pandemic.

“We don’t have 100% clarity around what the final outcome will be,” Morrison said. “It could be a mural, it could be a large photo banner, it might be a branded flagpole banner.”

In any case, the Black Arts District plans to explore how organizations historically supported each other before the advent of fundraising capital campaigns. Morrison is personally curious about “methods we need to tap back into,” emphasizing that while it’s difficult to imagine something that never existed, it’s easier to learn about the way something was decades ago—to learn about how schools, daycares, nonprofits, and more came together to weave together a sturdy social fabric.

Furthermore, Morrison hopes to learn from past setbacks and successes alike as they envision the neighborhood’s future. “If it once was,” they said, “then it can be.”


Kenneth Morrison, director of programs for the Black Arts and Entertainment District
The Black Arts District’s executive director, Brion Gill, better known as “Lady Brion”

The Black Arts District’s executive director, Brion Gill, better known as “Lady Brion,” has been a spoken word poet since high school. Growing up, Lady Brion, 33, knew several artists who put her on the path to doing art full time. But while she snuck into bars and clubs underage to find community, there weren’t many institutions she regularly attended.

Having been raised to give back, she hopes to change that with the Sanaa Center, which will feature spaces for meeting, practicing, performing, and more —all intended to empower Black creatives, foster youth development, and attract both people and investment to the Avenue.

“The idea is that this will be a place where creatives of all kinds can come and produce work, collaborate, network with one another, perform, and be immersed in art production—a space that is generating new jobs in West Baltimore and catalyzing new economic and community development,” Lady Brion said. 

The Black Arts District will soon launch a multimillion-dollar campaign to expand the Harris-Marcus Center and construct a new art center, activating a currently vacant plot and filling a much-needed hole in the cultural landscape. Lady Brion said the project is also fulfilling a dream she and fellow organizers had years before the Black Arts District was designated in 2019.

“I never thought of it this way, but we are bringing that very same thing to fruition almost a decade later,” she said, sharing that the Sanaa Center, whose name is derived from the Swahili word for “art,” represents a hope and vision for the Avenue’s future. 

The Center is set to open to the public by 2026. Exact plans for the designs, spearheaded by the firm Drummond Projects, will be finalized after a series of community engagement forums. “We didn’t want to concretize anything until we had sufficient input from community stakeholders and artists,” Lady Brion said.

She added that the Center is also meant to be an “autonomous Black space.”

“That’s something there isn’t much of in Baltimore City—institutions and space that are created and led by Black folks,” she said. “This can absolutely be a model for other young Black creatives and entrepreneurs who want to plant these kinds of roots in Baltimore City as well.”

Photographs courtesy of the Black Arts District

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