A sign that reads "Cab Calloway" hangs on the front of the Baltimore house where census records and historical accounts suggest he lived. (Sameer Rao/Baltimore Sun)

On first glance, the three-floor home at 2216 Druid Hill Ave. looks much like others on its block: vacant, weathered, boarded up and marked with white X’s on red square signs that confirm it is, indeed, structurally unsound. Large patches of blue-green paint have peeled off its facade, revealing the red bricks underneath. Thick weeds grow on its stoop.

Only a small white sign on one of the boarded-up first-floor windows, spelling out “Cab Calloway” in blue bubble letters, indicates its past life as a home for one of Baltimore’s most famous artists.

Marti Pitrelli takes credit for the sign. Citing census records and historical accounts such as Alyn Shipton’s “Hi-De-Ho: The Life of Cab Calloway,” which notes that the jazz great lived there in his teens, Pitrelli has publicly argued for the house’s importance.

Pitrelli and others — including Calloway’s grandson, Peter C. Brooks — oppose a plan backed by the city and community groups to raze the house, as well as other vacant properties on its side of the block. The land would then form part of a new park, called Cab Calloway Square, slated for construction beginning in 2021.

“My position is: Once these homes are gone, they’re gone forever, and the city should really keep its options open and consider developing it into a tourist or commercial type of thing,” Brooks said.

On city- and neighborhood-
focused Facebook pages, Pitrelli called on group members to make sure the city and its partners integrate the house into the park instead of demolishing it.

“It would be cultural genocide to destroy Cab Calloway’s home,” she wrote on May 25. “The city should be protecting our cultural treasures, not destroying them.”

Pitrelli’s post linked to an online survey from Design Collective, a Baltimore-based architecture and planning firm working with the city’s Department of Planning and the Druid Heights Community Development Corp. on Cab Calloway Square. The survey seeks feedback until Monday and specifies that the planning department “identified the block bounded by Baker Street, Druid Hill Avenue, Gold Street, and Division Street” as an ideal space. It also notes that the park is part of the Baltimore Green Network initiative designed to bring more green spaces to Baltimore’s neighborhoods.

“The purpose of Cab Calloway Square is to create a community amenity that all of the residents within the neighborhood could enjoy,” Baltimore Green Network coordinator Kimberly Knox wrote in an email. “Green spaces provide financial, health and social benefits to a community.”

Design Collective associate Anna Dennis and Druid Heights CDC Executive Director Anthony Pressley confirmed that the plans would involve demolishing the house. They noted that their organizations solicited community input through the CDC’s monthly community meetings at the Maggie Quille Community Center, where the CDC has offices. The Design Collective created an aerial rendering of where the park would sit at an on-site community event on May 25.

They also noted that the park would incorporate bricks and marble staircases from the house into its design.

“The community is fully for the square,” Pressley said. He critiqued Pitrelli’s protest as counterproductive.

“Ms. Pitrelli does not live in this community. She has not attended two years of our community meetings. She has not been a part of the planning. She’s just been a part of the protest,” Pressley said. He added that the buildings on that block have been boarded up and vacant since the unrest after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968.

Pitrelli, for her part, said that she lives in the historic Marble Hill area near Henry Highland Garnet Park, in the adjacent Upton neighborhood. The area, like the adjacent Druid Heights, was home to historic properties that link back to its black cultural and political legacy. Pitrelli said that this history lends itself to tremendous tourism potential, which she says she has witnessed by giving tours of Marble Hill through the nonprofit organization Baltimore Heritage.

“People from all over the world come to see the famous jazz history,” she wrote in an email. “People want to touch the history, see the history, experience the history, and the architecture is key to that.”

Pitrelli previously worked to conserve the Henry Highland Garnet and Billie Holiday Memorial parks. She criticized the logic that building parks and razing blighted properties can, in and of themselves, bolster surrounding neighborhoods.

“It costs a lot of money to build from scratch, so it’s really hard to get developers to build new stuff. . . . It’s just never going to happen,” she said. “But if we work with what we’ve got and maintain the Druid Heights corridor, put homeowners in there — that’s going to help ensure the success of the park.”

Both Pitrelli and Pressley said that homeownership and acknowledging Calloway’s centrality to the neighborhood matter. Pressley and Knox argued that the new park would be an asset to those living on the 2200 block’s odd-numbered side. Pitrelli said that the city’s various incentives for new homeowners make historic properties economically sensible and accused officials of misleading communities to think that preservation costs more money and resources than demolition.

Brooks, who said he learned about the house’s history in part from Pitrelli, spoke at the May 25 event. He has created a pamphlet dedicated to his grandfather’s history and remains passionate about preserving the full narrative around his grandfather’s musical and cultural contributions.

“I really think [the house] should be a location for all of Baltimore’s jazz history and emphasize a lot of the things my grandfather sang about: food, fashion, having a good time, sports, athletics — he was really a good-time kind of guy,” he said. “He wanted people to feel good.”

— Baltimore Sun