The childhood home of bandleader Cab Calloway was torn to pieces by demolition excavators today in what critics described as a stealth attack by the city housing department.
“This was very sneaky of them to do on a holiday weekend,” said Marti Pitrelli, an architectural historian and a leader of a year-long drive to save the Calloway house.
As she spoke, a pair of yellow excavators had already knocked down half of the 2200 block of Druid Hill Avenue, billows of yellow and black smoke rising in their wake.
Court Appeal Ignored?
Three weeks ago, Pitrelli filed an appeal in Baltimore Circuit Court of an administrative order that gave the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) permission to raze the block.
The appeal was approved by Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey M. Geller on August 18, and is currently listed as “active” on the Maryland Judiciary Case Search.
Such an appeal does not legally prevent HCD from proceeding with its stated plans. But it does put an agency on notice that an appeal is on record, and a future judicial decision could go against the agency.
According to HCD spokesperson Tammy Hawley, “we waited for possible notice of any additional action, etc., and never received anything.”
In an email today, she said, “We were not served any notice and never notified of any action by any petitioner within 30 days after the ruling.”
As a result, Hawley said, teardown work “resumed on August 24 and has been proceeding since then.”
Pitrelli said she observed wrecking equipment being assembled on the north end of the block yesterday afternoon. She called the courthouse, but could not reach an official or get back a return call.
A “Civil Matter”
Early this morning, the block was cordoned off by police.
A K&K Adams wrecking crew started up the excavators, which swiftly aimed their metal buckets at the large, brick-and-stone rowhouses.
“They wanted to get the block down with as little publicity as possible,” Pitrelli said of the timing of the take down. “In the end, the city just did what they wanted.”
“They wanted to get the block down with as little publicity as possible” – Marti Pitrelli.
She asked the police for help. An officer issued a “Citizen/Police Contact Receipt” to her that said the department could take no action because the demolition was a “civil matter.”
• The Brew has covered the Calloway dispute from the start. Here’s a link to our stories.
Pitrelli said she then reached a Baltimore District Court Commissioner, who told her the District Court can’t enforce a Circuit Court case. He suggested that she contact the court on Tuesday.
“I am profoundly sad. This is anguishing to me,” said Pitrelli, who lives nearby in Marble Hill and had helped spearhead a petition drive calling for the Calloway house to be saved.
Peter Brooks also witnessed today’s demolition of 2216. This was the house, he said, where his grandfather lived with his parents and his talented musical sister, Blanche Calloway, before and after World War I.
From this vantage point, Brooks is convinced, his grandfather absorbed the sounds and sights of nearby Pennsylvania Avenue, whose rough-and-tumble nightlife inspired his big-band sound and the lyrics to “Reefer Man,” “Minnie the Moocher” and other famous songs.
In the end, Brooks said today, “we didn’t have the groundswell of public support” to surmount the political clout of the Druid Heights Community Development Corp., which opposed rehabilitating the Calloway house as a historic landmark or as a bed-and-breakfast for music buffs and traveling musicians.
Thiru Vignarajah, who denounced the demolition plan during his unsuccessful primary bid for mayor, also turned up on the scene today.
“They can’t pick up the damn trash,” he told The Brew, referring to the current city administration, “but they can find time to tear down a piece of Black history. It’s indefensible.”
“This hood got enough parks”
The CDC plans to include the demolished block in a proposed park bounded by Druid Hill Avenue and Baker, Division and Gold streets.
Once the heart of segregated, Black West Baltimore, the area has been cleared out by the city except for a small church on Division Street and an isolated KaBOOM playground rarely used by children.
“All our kids, they don’t have nothing to hang their pride on. This could have been something like that for them” – Steve Reed.
One area resident who watched disputed the notion that neighbors want the block raised for a park.
“I say ‘no’ to that – and I’ve been living in this area for 59 years,” said Steve Reed, who watched with others as the excavators bashed down the party walls and scooped up the debris.
“This hood got enough parks. You’re just making more places for people to get high.”
Reed said the house should have been preserved in Calloway’s memory.
“All our kids, they don’t have nothing to hang their pride on,” he said. “This could have been something like that for them.”