Neighborhood of Change
West All Saints Street was once the epicenter of Frederick's African American community. Can its future embrace its past?
Snapshots of West All Saints Street in the 1920s through the 1950s are dotted with grocery stores, beauty salons, pool halls, soda fountains and dry cleaners. Dr. Ulysses Bourne practiced medicine here for 50 years and Dr. George J. Snowball set up a dental practice. Their offices flanked residences, restaurants, fraternal lodges and churches. A hospital and a funeral home could be found here, as well. The street was the pulse of the African American community well into the 1960s and early ‘70s.
Residents dined at Jenks café, the Cresent Lunch Room or from George Ambush’s food truck. They went to dances at the Amvets, Elks Club and Pythian Castle. They shopped, worshipped and lived on the Downtown street. Even African Americans who lived in other areas of town and out in the county came to “Saints Street,” as longtime residents refer to it, for essential services that were unavailable elsewhere in a segregated city.
That version of Saints Street has faded, but is not forgotten.
Mary Harris remembers making the trip in the 1940s and ‘50s from the county into the city to sell corn from her family’s farm. “There was an atmosphere of a party when we would come to West All Saints Street in the summertime. We got to know the characters of the street. It was exciting even to just sit on my cousins’ porch and watch people,” she says.
Janet “Tootie” Foreman grew up on Saints Street and raised her family there. At 87, her memories are as vivid and as close-at-hand as her prized photo albums. Thumbing through the books, she relives good times with classmates at the all-black Lincoln High School and recalls friends and neighbors, like former Frederick City Alderman William O. Lee Jr. As a young girl, she lived with her family at 174 W. All Saints Street and when she married she moved to her husband’s family’s home down the street at 216. She and her husband, Bill, raised four children: Butch, Chuck, Shelly and Gary. She has clippings from Chuck’s NFL career as a running back with the Minnesota Vikings in the 1970s, and many more of neighborhood gatherings and dances.
“I have a lot of good, wonderful memories of Saints Street cookouts,” she says. Life was full of activities with good friends as well as hard work and family obligations. “My mother was widowed at an early age and she worked hard. The people my mother worked for were good to her. She never turned down a job. She put family first. That’s what people did.”
Tootie’s brother, Pete Sewell, also has his share of photos, clippings and mementos. They cover the walls of his Saints Street barber shop where he’s been cutting hair since 1971 after retiring from the Department of the Navy. He shares his sister’s affectionate memories of the past, but wonders about the future of the street where he has lived and worked for so many years.
“Everything on Saints Street has changed drastically,” he says “Wait and see what comes up the street. The black community has gone.”
The end of legal segregation that restricted African Americans’ housing, education and employment options and barred them from venues such as theaters, parks, swimming pools and retail stores, of course facilitated greater mobility that, in a way, diminished Saints Street’s cultural significance. Of course, Sewell, Foreman and Harris refuse to romanticize the Jim Crow era and prefer to celebrate the work of their own families and neighbors who brought about necessary social change. They nod approvingly when they speak of Alderman Lee, longtime NAACP president Lord Nickens and others whose work opened up opportunities for them and their children.
Today, Harris sits on the board of the African American Resources-Cultural and Heritage Society, simply known as AARCH, hoping to preserve not only her own memories, but those of others who remember West All Saints Street as the vibrant hub of the city. Foreman sits with her photos and mementos in her house in north Frederick—she sold her Saints Street property in the 1990s. Sewell sits in his one-chair barbershop, open only a couple of days a week to accommodate a handful of regular customers. The Saints Street of today is historic buildings, mostly homes. Some are in disrepair; some are being renovated and restored. Others are for sale. All are in Frederick’s Historic Preservation District and that designation affects current and future land use.
Fear and Fact
There’s a perception among some that developers from neighboring counties are eyeing up the street to buy property, build new structures and push out longtime residents. “This is now a prime location. Once [developers] renovate and rebuild, they make the prices higher than the people can afford. It has happened all over the country. They displace the people who live there. I hope that Frederick can open its eyes and be a little different,” says AARCH president David Key. Downtown development, particularly along nearby Carroll Creek, will extend and affect West All Saints Street, sooner rather than later, says AARCH member Gerald Palm. “The wave is coming. You learn how to surf.”
While the redevelopment steamroller has driven through other parts of the city and county, there’s no such activity on West All Saints Street. In fact, there are currently no applications for demolition on the street, according to Lisa Mroszczyk Murphy, historic preservation planner for Frederick’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). So, what will the street look like in 10 years? “I can’t speculate,” she says. “I can only say that the historic guidelines will be in place and the commission would consider changes, building by building.”
Frederick Mayor Randy McClement rejects any negative characterization of gentrification in the area, saying, “The marketplace doesn’t allow it. The vast majority of investors are looking to buy and stay. It’s good for the city.”
People looking to find homes on West All Saints can expect to find properties in a range of conditions and prices. Recently, a three bedroom house with two-and-a-half baths at 162 W. All Saints St. was listed for sale at $275,000, or for rent at $1,650 a month.
New and Old
The Pythian Castle, once a key structure on the street that served as a gathering place for civic organizations, a social club and dance hall, had fallen into disrepair near the end of the last century. It stood vacant for 30 years until current owners Margaret and Kevin Hluch moved in 16 years ago. The artists have converted the old hall into a unique residence. “We’ve put a lot of sweat and equity into the property,” says Margaret. She says the couple loves their house, particularly the garden and the portion of the property that faces Carroll Creek. “We own the property and love the street. It’s an amazing space.”
But living there has its challenges. With so many social services located in the south end of the city, homeless people walk up and down the street, congregating in nearby Mullinex Park, Margaret Hluch says. “I’ve got people hanging out, doing drugs, drinking. It’s gotten a little worse,” she says. “I would love for it to get better.”
She and her husband continue to work on their property, renovating the second floor with plans to eventually rent out apartment space. Even though they have had disagreements with the HPC and difficulty complying with some of its rules and regulations, they continue to seek agreement. Margaret Hluch believes the street can become a draw for more people to move in and stay, mainly because of economics. “People would move here because it’s more reasonable to buy here.”
McClement says the Millennials are coming and will be the driving force behind any residential revival on the street. And while the HPC will ensure the integrity of facades, it’s the interior changes and upgrades that will appeal to younger home buyers, he says. “The Millennials are looking for that location. They want to walk and live in the Downtown area. They also want things like solar energy and overall energy efficiency.”
In the next 10 years, with these anticipated changes, McClement says property values on the street are likely to rise. “I would hope that would be the case for all of Frederick,” he adds.
Past and Present
In the midst of all the change on West Saints Street, Asbury United Methodist Church stands as a symbol of stability. Located at the corner of West All Saints and Court streets, Asbury owns the church building, an adjacent education building and other properties, including a parsonage at the corner of Bentz and Saints. Its ministry extends well beyond Sunday services, operating a food bank and a clothing closet for people in need. The Religious Coalition also uses the parsonage as a homeless shelter for families.
No matter what’s in store for the neighborhood, Asbury’s pastor, the Rev. LaDelle Brooks, says the church will endure and serve. “What can you do if people sell their property? It makes the street vulnerable. But this is the way I look at it. All kinds of people come into contact with our church and we are a light to them all. Asbury will be there as God allows. We are called to be a witness where we are, and to serve the community as it changes.”
Rose Chaney is working with other AARCH members to preserve and record history and educate future generations. The organization’s goal is to identify, collect, preserve, exhibit and disseminate the history and culture of African Americans in Frederick County. To that end, AARCH has established a speakers bureau and is working to offer an upgraded walking tour of the Downtown area that will feature guides who will lend their personal perspectives. Currently, the Tourism Council of Frederick County offers a mobile app and a map of African American Heritage Sites to facilitate self-guided walking tours.
Chaney points out that many of the changes on West All Saints Street were ushered in by integration. She notes that a lot of change and progress was a long time coming. “There are still prejudices and there always will be,” she says. But recording and learning from the past can help society grow. Sitting in the basement of the Asbury church, she focuses on the future. “We can reminisce and everything. But, we don’t want to go back.”