On his deathbed, William Henry “Chick” Webb asked his friend and physician, Dr. Ralph J. Young, to fulfill the dream he wouldn’t live to see: raise money for a recreation center for the black children in East Baltimore gather and play.
Originally from East Baltimore, Webb rose to fame as a jazz and swing drummer and bandleader who influenced Duke Ellington and mentored a young Ella Fitzgerald. But tuberculosis and a host of other health issues cut short the musical prodigy’s life.
Aged just 34, Webb died in 1939 in his hometown, where he worried that young people were turning to crime and struggling to make ends meet. Young, Webb’s doctor since childhood, promised to make his friend’s dream come true.
Thus the Chick Webb Memorial Recreation Center, the first recreation facility and swimming pool built for blacks in East Baltimore, was born. The establishment opened its doors in 1947, after years of community-wide fundraising and organizing, as well as the help of Fitzgerald and other celebrities, who organized charity concerts and other events honoring Webb.
Generations later, the center – now a city landmark that is protected from demolition and “inappropriate” development – is about to undergo major rehabilitation work, thanks in large part to the efforts of several concerned community members who feared the facility’s demise and advocated for its future.
Thus, history repeats itself.
Before the aging recreation center was called a landmark, several East Baltimore residents heard that the city planned to raze it for a major new redevelopment project.
“Word got out that [the city was] trying to remove the history of East Baltimore, which was built on low-income communities,” said Catherine Benton Jones, president of Change 4 Real, a neighborhood coalition that helped plan the renovated facility. . “History was going to be erased, and when the community caught wind of it, that’s when the community came together.”
The Perkins Somerset Oldtown Transformation Plan is a massive undertaking, involving approximately $1 billion in investments from federal, state, municipal and private partners, that aims to create a new mixed-income housing community in East Baltimore.
Residents of Perkins and Somerset Homes have already been relocated, but have the option of returning to their neighborhoods as the approximately 1,345 new homes are completed. Some of the accommodation will be available at lower than market rates.
The project includes two new parks, two recreation centers and a new school. Janet Abrahams, president and CEO of the City of Baltimore Housing Authority, called the Chick Webb Center a “critical component” to the neighborhood’s transformation.
But Chick Webb’s fate wasn’t always so clear, say several East Baltimore residents. Many were skeptical from the start, given that past redevelopment projects elsewhere in the city have shattered neighborhoods and erased black history. Many in East Baltimore didn’t want to see their neighborhood become the next domino.
“I got angry. We were very, very disappointed. We got hurt,” said East Baltimore native Myrtle Conigland. “I’ve been riding and using Chick Webb for as long as I can remember.”
After rumors of Chick Webb’s demolition began to circulate, members of the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School alumni network hatched a plan to save their community recreation center. Called the Dunbar Coalition, the group – led by Conigland, its chairman – successfully lobbied East Baltimore Councilman Robert Stokes to introduce legislation that would send the Chick Webb building to the preservation committee Baltimore history for review.
In July 2017, Chick Webb was deemed eligible for landmark status, not only for its ties to Webb, but also for its architectural value.
“The building itself is designed in the Art Moderne style by Baltimore architect Frederic A. Fletcher, and is an excellent example of the style,” wrote Eric Holcomb, executive director of the Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation of the city, in the historic designation of the building. report.
Feedback and community feedback have strengthened Chick Webb’s revitalization plan, said Katherine Brower, design planner at Baltimore City Recreation and Parks. She said the department never planned to demolish the building, although developers may have shown some interest in doing so.
For the Perkins Somerset Oldtown project to qualify for a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city needed to invest in recreation in East Baltimore, Brower said. She acknowledged, however, that the demolition rumors may never be settled.
“Quite honestly, there’s a lot of mistrust between residents and citizens and any city agency,” Brower said. “So a lot of projects try to build trust. We don’t want to build something [the community] does not want or does not want to use.
Brower said the building’s historic landmark designation required the department to work closely with the city’s historic curators to ensure the building’s architectural integrity remains intact. There are also budget constraints, she said, limiting what can be done there.
Still, nearly $20 million will be infused into Chick Webb, Brower said. In addition to the facade and courtyard improvements, the interior will feature a new gymnasium and walking track; more accessible and modern locker rooms; a reconfigured indoor pool; and a recording studio and “founders room” that pay homage to the building’s past. Rooms will also be available for community meetings and cultural events.
“There is no part of space that is untouched; it’s all in progress,” said Lance Decker, architect and design supervisor with the Recreation and Parks Department. “For us, $20 million is life changing.”
There will also be space in the lobby dedicated to telling the story of Chick Webb, Brower said, and the story of East Baltimore. A working group of community members, historians and scholars who studied Webb and the music of his time are involved, she said. And there are plans for a mural on the outside of the building.
“We felt that was important because not only was the center funded solely by African Americans, but it was for African Americans,” Brower said. “We want to show that. We want to make sure we’re telling a story that they helped make and that they feel is representative of the story they want to tell.
Lisa Andrews, senior partner at GWWO Architects, which is helping to lead the design portion of the project, said the building’s size would almost double, from around 17,192 square feet to 33,172 square feet. The architects envision it as a “state-of-the-art multi-generational center”, with a colorful exterior color scheme in the spirit of Webb’s vibrant drums.
The city also plans to invest in other nearby recreation centers, including the Madison Square Recreation Center just a few blocks away. And while Chick Webb might be too small for a competition-size pool, Brower said Madison Square might be a better fit, even though it’s just outside the boundaries of the Perkins Somerset Oldtown project.
Brower said the department envisions a network of related recreation facilities with different amenities and purposes for neighborhood residents to use, similar to a campus. She said she hopes it will also help break down neighborhood silos.
That’s not necessarily how Baltimore works, said Ronald Miles, a former Dunbar Coalition member who has since formed a nonprofit called the RJY Chick Webb Council. He contributed to the designation of the center as a historical monument and to the realization of the ideas of the Hall of Founders.
He spent much of his childhood at Chick Webb, he said, and it did for him what its founders intended: it gave him a safe space to grow up.
“I made the dream come true,” the 74-year-old said.
Miles has dedicated the past five years to learning about the history of the building and raising awareness of the Chick Webb Center locally and nationally. Hopefully, he says, Chick Webb will one day be a household name.
In his view, the city hasn’t done a good enough job of teaching people about its history or preserving its roots. He cited other treasured landmarks, such as Cab Calloway’s childhood home, which were destroyed, despite some residents’ preservation efforts.
He also questioned plans for the new venue, saying Chick Webb’s pool, for example, should have been competition-sized. And he’s frustrated, he said, that it’s taken city officials so long to invest in what he called sacred space.
“I was 70 when I learned the story. You walk around and see buildings, and you don’t make the connection. We don’t educate,” Miles said. “How do you miss Chick Webb- after all these years?”
Brower said it’s not unusual for the town’s development to spark interest from neighborhood residents and activists, though officials are tasked with striking a balance between what the community wants and what’s practical. .
She said community members have been pushing officials to be more transparent about their processes and timelines, and rightly so. She said she understood their frustrations with the slow bureaucracy that sometimes impedes progress. The coronavirus pandemic, she said, has also slowed some of the momentum.
“There’s a huge amount of work involved, and it seems like nothing is happening for long periods of time from the audience’s perspective because we’re not communicating with them about every little change that’s happening,” Brower said. “I can understand the community view that we are doing nothing. But we are working. »
Chick Webb is still in its design phase, but Brower hopes construction can begin next January, after celebrating its 75th anniversary.
Conigland, of the Dunbar Coalition, said the community will continue to push to keep Webb’s memory alive – even if it causes tension or discomfort.
“It hasn’t been easy, but that’s what we expected,” Conigland said. “We’re going to make sure Chick Webb is set up so he can serve older adults and middle-aged people, as well as young people.”