Al Sharpton seeks support for Black culture and art district in Baltimore

The Rev. Al Sharpton dropped by Baltimore on Monday to seek support for a fledgling plan to create a new arts district in the city to honor African-American cultural achievements.

The proposal, by a group calling itself the African-American Arts Cultural & Entertainment Consortium, is still in the preliminary stages. But Sharpton said he supports the development of such a district because it would bolster the self-image of local youths.

“This is not just an investment in the business community, it’s an investment in the social order,” Sharpton told an enthusiastic crowd of about 200 during an early evening rally inside the War Memorial auditorium. “This is not just about developing nightlife, but about developing the day and nightlife of our local youth, by reinterpreting for them who they are.”

Consortium president Eric Stewart said that several dozen local entertainers and businessmen would like to develop a cultural district on about eight blocks near M&T Bank Stadium. He said the group envisions a project that could include a film studio, restaurants, boutiques and family activities.

The city has two arts districts that provide tax breaks to developers willing to build performance spaces and studios —Station North and Highlandtown. A third arts district has been proposed for the west side.

But Stewart noted that several Baltimore neighborhoods, such as Greektown and Little Italy, have established ethnic identities. While not arts districts in the traditional sense of the word, they are recognized cultural enclaves.

“Considering that Baltimore has a 67 percent African-American majority, we don’t feel that we have gotten the welcome handshake we deserve,” Stewart said.

He acknowledged that the location proposed by the consortium would include none of the city’s three largest African-American cultural institutions: the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, the Great Blacks in Wax Museum or the Eubie Blake Cultural Center. (The Blake Center would likely be part of a west-side arts district).

“We think of this as a concentrated area of black-owned businesses,” he said. “but we aren’t suggesting that African-American cultural entities can only be located inside our district.”

Studies have found that arts districts are most successful when they are created in a neighborhood in which artists and entertainers already live, which would not be true of the new venture. But Stewart thinks that the consortium could succeed if it approaches city planners with a list of developers and business owners who are committed to opening up shop in the designated area.

“When we get to the table with the city and the state, we will have a detailed plan,” he said.

Sharpton, meanwhile, pledged his further assistance.

“We will support this effort as much as we can, not only to spotlight an African-American cultural district, but to make it a national model and tourist attraction,” he said.

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