To see and be seen Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue was a must for at least half of the 20th century. Night clubs, restaurants, live performances and motion picture venues flourished. Stores bustled with eager customers. Pennsylvania Avenue, like Manhattan’s 125th Street, was the cultural heart of Black Baltimore. It was The Avenue.
Black people began to settle around the churches in what was known as Old Baltimore as early as the 1820s. Pennsylvania Avenue became the chief thoroughfare. Black professionals, lawyers, physicians, beauticians, accountant, pharmacists and more proudly hung out their shingles on The Avenue and surrounding streets of West Baltimore. Black political life in Baltimore evolved along Pennsylvania Avenue.
Despite their overwhelmingly Black customer base, most retail establishments remained predominantly owned by whites. But they catered to African American tastes and whims. For instance, on The Avenue, Blacks could try on clothing before they made a purchase. That was unheard of in downtown and white Baltimore for decades. On The Avenue, Blacks accounted for something, unlike the rest of the hyper-segregated city. In many respects, Baltimore was as racist as any southern city in the US.
The decline of Pennsylvania Avenue actually began in the mid-1960s. Black professionals began to shun the place. It was perceived as seedy. They took advantage of desegregation and began to patronized stores in the formerly all-white downtown area. The Avenue still held its own as an entertainment center. The leaders of modern jazz and rhythm and blues still regularly performed in the theatres and night clubs that lined the street. The advent of Television television further wounded Pennsylvania Avenue. Ironically, Black and white film venues suffered a decline in ticket sales at that time. Why pay to see Ray Charles at the Royal Theatre when you could see him for free on the Ed Sullivan Show? The live performance market of Pennsylvania Avenue simply withered during the mid-1950s. But more importantly, the blossoming Black petit-bourgeoisie of Baltimore simply sought status in the desegregated stores and cultural centers of white Baltimore. The Avenue was abandoned.
The riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968 were devastating. Merchants of all colors were looted. When those merchants collected insurance checks and moved their businesses from the inner city, the Black middle-class followed. A second rapid change was caused by an urban redevelopment that disrupted businesses along Pennsylvania Avenue – a new subway line. Caught in the crosscurrents, The Avenue reached such a tattered state in 1971 that the Royal Theater was demolished by city officials without major protest by the community.