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City’s promise to put a roof on Read’s not quick enough for protesters

A rally for Read's and a call to make the building the city's first civil rights museum.

k. C. Adler

Kay C. Adler demonstrates in front of the now-vacant Read’s store at Lexington and Howard streets today.

Photo by: Mark Reutter

The Rawlings-Blake administration is promising to install a temporary roof over the Read’s Drug Store by April – an extremely quick turnaround for the city, but not fast enough for critics who demonstrated outside of the building today.

The site of one of the nation’s first civil rights sit-ins, the Read’s building was slated for demolition last year until protests pressured Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to broker a deal to keep the building’s exterior walls intact.

The Brew detailed last month the poor condition of the building, whose roof has collapsed and inside floors have rotted from extensive water damage. The city has insisted the building does not pose a safety hazard because its brick walls and steel framing are sound.

Rev. Cortly C.D. Witherspoon, president of the Baltimore chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said the administration’s pledge to stabilize the building within 10 weeks was unsatisfactory.

“The city was aware of the fragile condition of this building for a long time,” he told a crowd of about 40 protesters. “We believe this is demolition by neglect, and the city of Baltimore should be held accountable.”

Sharon Black, of the Occupy4Jobs Network, pointed to the building’s upper windows, some of them wide open to the elements. What homeowner would keep their house in such a condition, she asked.

Last week, the city received seven bids to install a temporary roof and stabilize the building. A low bid of $349,000 by J.A. Argetakis Contracting was substantially below the city’s original estimate of $550,000 for the job.

Other bids ranged from $394,450 (Bob Andrews Construction) to $547,800 (P&J Contracting).

Demonstrators protesting the condition of the ex-Read's building, which was purchased by the city as part of the long-stalled "Superblock" development. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Demonstrators protesting the condition of the ex-Read's building, purchased by the city as part of the long-stalled "Superblock" development. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

The contract calls for gutting the interior of the building down to its steel beams and placing reinforcing steel bars on the four corners for stabilization.

A temporary wood roof, pitched on an angle, would direct rainwater to a gutter and downspout installed on the Howard Street side of the building. New plywood boards would be installed over the ground-floor windows and an entry door.

Responding to Criticism

The city has “fast tracked” the project following criticism from members of CHAP (Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation) and several civil rights activists. In December, CHAP commissioner Larry Gibson called the current state of the building “an absolute, complete case of demolition by neglect.”

Helena Hicks, another CHAP commissioner who participated in the 1955 Read’s sit-in as a Morgan State student, said she was told last week that the project will go before the Board of Estimates quickly.

Stephen Ceci, a student at UMBC, speaks at the rally. To his right is Rev. C.D. Witherspoon. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Stephen Ceci, a student at UMBC, speaks at the rally. To his right is Rev. C.D. Witherspoon. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

“They’re moving very, very fast after not moving at all for years,” Hicks said in an interview Friday.

Hicks is pushing for the full restoration of the building – “against the mayor’s wishes” – and has been planning with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference a suitable memorial to the sit-in.

Rawlings-Blake appointed her own committee to develop a commemoration plan that excluded Hicks and other activists. The committee’s report was delivered to the mayor’s office in December, but has not been publicly released.

Witherspoon today criticized the city administration’s failure to recognize the building’s historic significance as well as its alleged favoritism to developer interests.

“This is not just about Read’s. This is about big business taking away our history and taking away our small African-American businesses,” Witherspoon said.

Read’s is part of the “Superblock” redevelopment project, encompassing a full block of west Baltimore bounded by Howard, Lexington, Park and Fayette streets.

The Read's building has suffered from years of neglect, with several windows open tot he elements. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Two windows on this panel of the building were wide open today. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Four New York real-estate developers, known collectively as Lexington Square Partners, and a Atlanta developer were granted exclusive rights in 2007 to develop the block for national retail stores, an apartment high-rise and a possible luxury hotel.

The project has long been stalled by lawsuits and by preservation groups who argue the developers are in violation of a 2001 agreement with the Maryland Historical Trust.

The city has extended its contract with Lexington Square Partners three times, the latest extension to end on April 30.

“We want to send an awakening call to the Mayor and the City Council President and City Council that this is essentially a national treasure,” Witherspoon said. “We need to get their heads out of the clouds.”

Marvin “Doc” Cheatham, former president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, noted the number of civil rights leaders that came from Baltimore.

“This city is second to none in civil rights. We need a civil rights museum. We need a civil rights building. This building should be it,” he told the crowd.

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  • westside resident

    These preservationists are playing right into the hands of those that have stalled this project in litigation for years. Rather than clinging desperately to a building that is for all intents and purposes a shell of its former self we should move forward together with this project to create jobs, retail options and a safer community in the Lexington Market area. 

    As for Mr. Cheatham’s idea for a civil rights museum. He might first want to look at the attendance for the Maryland Museum of African American History and Culture in Baltimore City – with attendance slipping from 51,000 in 2008 to 36,000 in 2011. The museum has failed to meet its fundraising and attendance goals (though both were revised downward significantly over the years) from its opening in 2005. The museum has become a state supported boondoggle. Link to state report on the museum: http://mlis.state.md.us/2011rs/budget_docs/all/Operating/S50B_-_Maryland_African_American_Museum_Corporation.pdf  

  • Anonymous

    Last I heard, this may be the site of the first ever successful civil rights sit-in. Nobody has come up with an earlier one yet. The term sit-in had not even been coined at the time. It was not reported by the media at the time, even the African American media, because this was still back in a time when there was disagreement within the black community about whether people should be protesting in this manner. The protesters were seen as making trouble. The African American newspapers were taking advertisements from white businesses that they didn’t want to upset. Because events of this type were not being reported at the time, it’s difficult to even be certain if this was the first one, but it is, I think, as far as anyone knows. For that reason, it’s more significant even than the famous Greensboro sit-in five years later. The Greensboro one may not have happened without earlier successful sit-ins like the one at Read’s.

    The issue is more than the roof. The issue is that Baltimore City would even think of tearing any part of this building down. This is a very significant site, that must be preserved.

    • Freddie

      Then try raising some money for it to rehab and operate. What you want simply is not going to happen. Lower your expectations and move on.

  • Pohleece

    Having grown up in Baltimore and lived there for 29 years I remember going to Read’s with my mother as a youngster on her downtown shopping excursions before that area became a war zone after the ’68 riots. I agree with the “Westside Resident’s” comments as legitimate. We cannot preserve everything that is of some ancillary footnote to history. Read’s was important, yes!! But a memorial plaque there would be viewed as much as a museum exhibit. They tell me the Poe museum cannot remain open because of lack of funding, put the money there! Come on folks, our hometown needs jobs and income – honor the past and those brave individuals who gave blood, sweat and tears to grasp equality in this country from those who would deny them, but not to the detriment of those folks who have to live and survive now and in the future!

  • cb

    The issue with the old Read’s building is that it’s too far gone to save much other than the exterior of the building. The building as it was in 1955 is long gone. I don’t agree that a facadism treatment should be done, but it would be necessary to rebuild the entirety of the interior to even have a Read-like feel to it. The current plans by Lexington Square does just this and preserves most of what is left of the building.

    My only question is, where were these preservationists and protestors a decade ago when the building could have been salvaged? Where was the push for a civil-rights center then?

  • Anonymous

    The idea that the planned Superblock project is planned for the benefit of the people who are there now is questionable. It appears to instead be Brodie’s gentrification plan for the area, cooked up by the old white people who are really running the city behind the scenes.

    As a side note, the very term “Superblock” came from the urban renewal projects of the 1960s. Whole swaths of low income urban areas were torn down in that era to build dismal “Superblock” projects. 

    • JS

       Yes, and interesting that the former housing commissioner who signed off on a botched urban renewal project in the late 60s now sits on the CHAP board.  I’m concerned that the Lexington Square project will find the same eventual fate as Old Town Mall.

  • Anonymous

    The NYT has a story about the evolution of civil rights museums beyond statues to exhibits dedicated to telling the story of particular events.  Apparently the country is maturing in its understanding of the era and locations like the hotel where MLK was shot are being fully restored.  Apparently the powers that be in Baltimore have not reached that level of maturation.  And now it may be too late.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/20/us/african-american-museums-rising-to-recognize-civil-rights.html?_r=1&hp

    • Freddie

      The black community won’ t even support the Reginald Museum enough to sustain it. Why should this be any different?

  • Bwfryguy

    These people have been getting in their own way for 50 years. Fine, let it sit there and rot like the rest of the city, that’s really smart.

  • Tom Kiefaber

    A very interesting group of comments. Some like herownwrite, show real insight into what’s at stake surrounding the read’s controversy, yet others, typified by westsideresident seem to merely shill for the BDC/City Hall party line. 

    herownwrite notes a key element here, that the ramping up towards what’s been erroneously designated as the nation’s first 1960 lunch counter civil right sit-in protest began in earnest at Read’s in Baltimore five years earlier in 1955. These fed up Morgan students were particularly courageous and principled in an era when all the media in Baltimore, the Afro-American paper as well, moved to intensionally suppress the significance of that potential spark plug event and the racial rebellion it may have triggered. 

    In that light, with the facts of the racially suppressed media coverage of a seminal sit-in protest at Read’s Drugs in 1955  finally emerging from under a shroud, it’s time to change the history books. It’s a compelling, multifaceted story and it’s time to acknowledge that YES, even the African-American press in 1955 was complicit in essentially covering-up and suppressing what occurred. 

    With all the respectful rah rah celebrations taking place  regarding our nation’s legendary civil rights history, we should get-up, stand-up and step-up, to reveal and examine the less flattering aspects of what took place within the African American communities and media as well in the early years of the civil rights struggle. The surfacing of the 1955 Read’s Drugs lunch counter sit-in protest, in all probability the nation’s first, is a revelation that must be noted and honored, as over 50 years of black and white establishment supression are only now being revealed, layer by layer. 

    • JS

      As I argued during a CHAP hearing last year, the entire Market Center shopping district is remarkable for its role in early civil rights history.  The area was also Baltimore’s theater district, and in the late 1940s theaters such as Ford’s and the Maryland Theater were picketed for their policies of segregation.  Also, the Read’s lunch counter was not the only site for sit ins, just the earliest one.  All of the surviving businesses (drugstores and department stores) that were sites of protest should be preserved and commemorated in some way–but not simply with a plaque.

      I don’t know if this is the reason for the lack of coverage for the Read’s sit in, but the big difference between the theater picketings and the lunch counter sit ins was the age of the protesters.  College students from Morgan College and Goucher were the ones at the sit ins.  The earlier theater picketings were conducted by adults associated with the NAACP, local churches, and the actors themselves.

    • westside resident

      Tom, 
      Perhaps the best question to ask in this situation is – what would those who participated in the sit-ins want? There seem to me two broad options: 1) try to preserve any remnants of this great historical event at any cost after nearly 60 years of neglect, or 2) preserve what we can, honor those who made that selfless stand for their civil rights, and move on to make the area as vibrant as it once was. Thanks to the efforts of those who stood up by sitting-in for their rights any redevelopment will be open to all alike and bring prosperity to an economically comatose section of this great city. I have not had the opportunity to ask those that participated in these protests what there feelings are, but I would like to know. 

      As for your baseless assertion that I am a “shill” for the BDC/City Hall line I can assure you nothing is further from the truth. I am merely a resident in this neighborhood who walks its streets and frequents its shops on a daily basis here-and-now in 2012. In order to move past previous injustices we need to remember and treasure our past but step forward together as a city and offer safer streets, more jobs and more quality housing that this project will provide.

  • Unellu

    The Civil Rights movement is significant not just to this country but to the world.  Gandhi moved the British to leave through civil disobedience and got India her independence.  Martin Luther King admired and emulated Gandhi.  Gandhi got his inspiration for his own sit in anti-British stance from Thoreau, his American idol.  We now have the Arab Spring and other civil disobedience movements.  Although they turned violent, from the beginning in Syria and in Bahrain, in Tunisia and in Yemen they stirred people and kept them marching for better days and for freedom, peacefully. 

    The civil rights era is not just about Birmingham or Selma and all the other seminal events –it is about small people–the nameless, faceless ones.  It is about those who had the courage to stand up, and we, one of them and not one of the biggies, we who will probably not be remembered for any of the kind and brave things we have done in our lives, seem to be the first folks, who want to rush in, for the sake of expediency, to destroy the legacy and memory of ordinary people like ourselves. 

    Sometimes when the destruction is near, or nearly complete, that’s when some people feel the urgency to act–the outrage to rise.  As to why this protest is happening now as opposed to then–that may be an explanation.  A resurrection of Read’s, as an integral part of a vibrant new development in this area, is indeed possible if the developers and the city allow greed to take a backseat to need–the need to commemorate and remember those who gave the world a courageous modality to stand up to the wrongs perpetrated by those in charge–perpetrated merely because they were in charge. 

    If this was the first seed of the civil rights movement–a first sit-in by a handful of students–then we have no right to obliterate it.  They have earned their right to live on.  That sit in site should be considered sacrosanct–why is the Washington Monument, or the Lincoln Memorial any better westside resident?  All the ordinary folks who died in Tahrir Square, or the young Iranian woman, Neda, who died on the streets shot to death by the police during the last uprising of the opposition in Iran, or the number of children captured and tortured to death in Damascus, what should be their fate?  Oblivion? 

    Come on–that the current Museum of African American History in the city has lost visitors should be looked at in the light of what has happened to all museums in this country.  Attendance has fallen across the board and many museums are struggling.  One reason is recession–another is that people are glued to home entertainment and they are not stepping out as often with their kids for an education.  If attendance is down, then we must go visit–to boost it.  We should get the students jazzed about it.  We should not say–attendance is down in the African American Museum, so why should we preserve Read’s–a non sequitur, that kind of thinking. 

    If you have ever been to see the Ann Frank Museum in the Netherlands, you will understand what I mean.  It too is a small museum but it is an utterly inspiring one.  After a visit to that museum, one comes away elevated in thought and motivation–to stand up for what is right and to stand down what is wrong–even if only fleeting, that feeling makes you more human, than all the video games and passive entertainment in the world.  It is an active, live, participatory experience and it is essential for all children to grow up with such experiences so that they will become better people. 

    We keep building libraries for our presidents.  Of what use are they, may I know?  Of course the money comes from private donors ready to exaggerate these men into icons.  Though these libraries are redundant exercises in excess, I don’t see anyone stopping them. Every vain President, including those highly flawed and disgraced, has an egotistical paean to his blah, blah in the form of an expensive building–they don’t even wait for the guys to die to memorialize them- they keep living for ever anyway, draining taxpayer monies, pontificating every chance they get.  Stand up westside resident–stand up for men like yourself, unsung heroes of the land.

    Usha Nellore        

    • westside resident

      Usha – I don’t think you and I are in disagreement. The site should be memorialized. To what extent is the question. Could it be zoned as a restaurant/diner with a memorial inside? Could the ground floor be a stop/starting point on a Baltimore civil rights walking tour? You are correct that these individuals should be celebrated for their selfless contribution to our society. 

      The simple point I tried to relate (unsuccessfully I fear) in my comment was that development in the city cannot be held hostage to its rich past. We can work with, around and through it, preserving it for future generations, but at some point the costs of preservation outweigh the benefits. All I ask is that we take an evenhanded approach to the preservation of the site and consider all the various perspectives – balancing our need to preserve with our need to grow.Your note about museum attendance is incorrect however. Museum attendance is up around the country. See a report here from the American Association of Museums: 
      http://www.aam-us.org/upload/ACME11-report-FINAL.pdf

  • Unellu

    wesrside resident,
    Yes, museum attendance is up but income is down–a strange, irreconcilable fact.  I should have said that.  People are not giving to the museums and museums are languishing.  Everyone wants a free picnic westside resident.  Development in Rome is held hostage to its rich past–it rakes in the dough.  We promote what we want to, westside resident–African American history is under promoted in America.  The segregationist past continues to separate African American history from the rest of American history–after the month of February passes, the African American greats are interred and not exhumed until next Feb–I don’t agree with your parsing development into around and through–it should be development after preservation–”after” westside resident or development side by side with preservation.  

  • westside resident

    Usha,
    If you want to go live in a museum you are free to do so. I want to live in a city that is dynamic and growing. I would also not tout the Italian economy as the model we want to follow. 
    Who will do the promoting? Who will pay for these museums you want? We live in a world of dollars and cents and have to face the world as it presented to us with all its limitations and opportunities. I am not the one asking for the “free picnic” – it would seem that you are. 
    Perhaps we will have to agree to disagree Usha. Thank you for the pleasant debate.

  • Unellu

    Look westside resident,
    I go to museums regularly and I donate when I go.  I love museums.  I believe they are national treasures.  Man does not live by bread, water, cake, dollars and cents alone.  We are also cultural, social, artistic and fun loving creatures.  Can we afford it?  You ask that question, from the financial point of view.  Can we afford not to embrace our heritage?  I ask that question from the point of view of our spirits and souls.  You’ll say we should nourish our bodies first.  I’ll say if our spirits and our souls are starved our bodies will wilt too.  You’ll say, “My spirit is doing just fine, thank you without museums.”  I’ll say, “When did you last meet your spirit westside resident?” 

    You seem to think, westside resident, that preservation is the enemy of dynamism and growth.  Most urban planners would disagree with you.  The Chinese have built megalopolises and have razed their heritage to the ground in the process.  These are the people who traditionally worship their ancestors.  This is a pity and they know it too–at least the wise ones.  On the other hand, in Rome, they are digging up archeological treasures all the time and development, proceeds side by side with discoveries from the past.  That is a city where there is a reverence for the past, a sense of historic pride, a feeling that all things are linked–that modernity is an extension of what went before and in how people lived in the past, may lie answers to our own maladies. 

     There are chefs who study the gardens of the past and the recipes from the past– they revive the culinary art of yesteryear.  There are historians who study the medicinal herbs of the past and they discover remedies for today’s ailments within parchments that yield the secrets of ancient practitioners.  There are musicians in search of ancient rhythms.  If you had visited the Walters Museum recently, you would have seen a stellar exhibit there about the Palimpsest of Archimedes.  Fascinating– how these ancient parchments were preserved, how they were discovered, how they reached the Walters, how they were then rejuvenated by a brilliant Walters Museum art preservationist and how what we now know about Archimedes fills a book or two. 

    Just because we know quantum physics or we have computers does not mean we have to forget Kepler, Newton, Copernicus, Galileo or Einstein does it?  Just because we have space shuttles, does it mean we have to forget the rockets that took us to the moon?  When we look at Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings we see sparks of genius and a futuristic vision.  If we don’t have museums to collect, study, understand and disseminate vital information about the art, architecture, sculpture, science and culture of humans over centuries–the evolution of man would be barren.  We would be Philistines living in cultural deserts. 

    Go to Williamsburg–it is a whole museum dedicated to our pre revolutionary and revolutionary past.  They enact plays there from a century or two past and they sing songs as they were sung during the time of Jefferson and Madison.  And what about all the civil war enactments?  You think they are fatuous exercises? 

    You are on the wrong track westside resident.  It is woefully myopic– your point of view.  I just think African American history is the step child of the great and glowing American past.  The revisionists have been trying to right that wrong.  Even African Americans are apathetic to their rich, colorful and marvelous history of survival and courage in this country. 

    You have some solid points westside resident.  I also like the way you express yourself–concise and sincere.  But sadly your concerns are inadequate to explain to me why Read’s should not undergo the best preservation possible.  So we should do a patchwork job or be satisfied with a plaque of commemoration when it comes to Read’s.  Why?  So that some of us can have jobs and the neighborhood can thrive, minus a fully resurrected Read’s.  What will come of it?  We’ll all work, eat, genuflact  to the developers, work, eat some more–and pass into the great miasma and be unremembered.  For that you want Read’s to suffer the blows of the developers’ and the politicians’ lack of vision for it?  My god!  This kind of thinking spins my head.  And I can’t believe it is coming out of your typing fingers because fundamentally speaking you are a very smart person.                    

    • Westside Resident

       Usha,
      I get it – I really do. You have to see both sides, or at least acknowledge they exist. You pontificate on ephemeral values and I do agree with you on many of your points, but man cannot live on spirit and good feelings alone. All I am arguing for is balance – between old and new, remembrance and progress, history and future.

      I do enjoy living in a city with people like you. Our differences of opinion are what make this place an enjoyable city to live in.

  • Unellu

    The Smithsonian broke ground today for a National Museum of African American History and Culture–long overdue.  We have an American Indian Museum–that is a great one and now this.  No more a step child–African American History joins the mainstream.  The new museum will be completed in 2015 and it will house some spectacular African American art, I hope.  I say, rebuild Read’s there–a life size Read’s in a large space in the museum and have live enactments of the Baltimore sit in.  Question is this: does Baltimore deserve its illustrious African American past?    

  • Barnadine the Pirate

    Ms. Adler’s sign to the contrary notwithstanding, I don’t. This really has become a “can’t do” city — there is no idea, project, plan, or vision that won’t be brought to a screeching halt by someone complaining about something.

  • City4fr

    The Read’s Building like much of the area really is in such crappy condition. I’ve lived in Baltimore all my life and had no idea of the area’s significance in Civil Rights History. In fact its only recently that I’ve started walking through the Old West side. The area is full of such wonderful architecture, I wasn’t alive during much of the shopping district’s hay-day. But losing Howard Street has clearly been one of Baltimore’s biggest losses. After a while having to go the inner harbor or one of the more suburban big box centers really starts to blow. The harbor is tired and really offers little of interest to a local. 

    It’s unfortunate that we do very little to preserve the centers of Black History in Baltimore. But when you think about it, some would argue that integration is what destroyed Howard St. After a while Whites just gave up and decided that they would much rather gather for shopping and entertainment inside of isolated huge mega box complexes, and many Blacks followed suit. As a result the city lowered it expectations, city leaders bent over backwards to accomodate corporate interests (mainly developers) and concentrated all the action around Charles Center and then the Harbor. All of the major developments and contracting went almost exclusively to white owned companies creating nice lumps of cash for some but no real long term employment or opportunity for many more. This strategy has resulted in the Baltimore of today, a major city without a single fortune 500 company, not even energy lol. I guess thats why Blacks in Baltimore own only 8% of the city’s wealth. 64% of the population but only 8% of power and control.

    What interest really do city leaders, urban renewal officials, and developers have in preserving the memory of one of this nation’s most radical movements. If the people here in Baltimore remembered, they choose to continue to follow in the spirit and might one day decide to rise up and demand better. More than 12% would show up for elections. That is exactly the opposite of what a lot of folks in Baltimore want, you know too many people demanding their fair share.

     The real crime here is just how bad the developers plans look, aww this is really just a crime. All development ain’t good development. For those who argue about greater prosperity and all think about how luxury retail has worked in the region. Harbor East was supposed to be a center for that,  but in Baltimore all of the big national names i.e. Tiffany, Burberry, Louie V. went to Towson, and it cost Baltimore County nothing. Harbor East and Lexington Superblock are costing the city millions.

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