Out & About: Rebuilding pride on Baltimore

Baltimore Avenue is a busy place. With trolleys rattling up and down the street every few minutes and a steady stream of car traffic, this is one of the most traveled arteries in the city. The stretch between 45th and 50th streets has also become something of an urban hub, with eclectic restaurants and African boutiques amid the usual lineup of laundromats, barbershops and cell phone vendors.

Baltimore Avenue also has an image problem, and on a recent visit it wasn’t hard to see why. Pedestrians on the street were few and far between, and the heavy iron security gates guarding many storefronts made it hard to figure out which businesses were open and which were closed forever.

“Come in. We won’t bite or your money back,” promised a sign in one window, summing up the less-than-promising first impression. But spend some time here, cross a few thresholds, and you start to see why community leaders are talking about a commercial renaissance on the avenue.

True, the picture lacks cohesion, but the signs of renewal are here—in the revamped facades sporting three-tone paint jobs, in the litter-free sidewalks, in the “Coming Soon” signs promising Caribbean food and croissants.

“We’re starting to turn the tide,” said Eric Goldstein, executive director of University City District, which began a concerted effort to reinvigorate the corridor two years ago when a study revealed that nearby residents perceived the avenue as unsafe and unclean. UCD began with the basics, sending out a six-day-a-week cleaning crew, as well as “safety ambassadors” to patrol the streets.

Newcomers welcome

Newcomers have found a warm welcome here. Manni Phanthavong moved her Laotian restaurant from its 46th and Sansom location two years ago, she said, because “so many of our customers told us to come to this neighborhood.” Her Café Vientiane—a serene and lovely space with mint green walls and floral tablecloths—occupies a formerly vacant building in the 4700 block.

Other new businesses have sprung up, like the year-old Abraccio, an Italian restaurant opened by the former Palladium owners. The ground-up construction, in a formerly trash-strewn vacant lot on 47th Street, just below Baltimore Avenue, is an elegant stucco building designed by Main Line architect Shep Houston. With its wrap-around porch and generous expanses of glass, it embodies a sense of optimism and pride that’s new to the neighborhood.

Sugar Hill Bakery—with home baked goodies like peaches ‘n cream cake and sweet potato cheesecake—recently opened its doors a couple of blocks further west, while the Firehouse Farmer’s Market at 50th and Baltimore now boasts full occupancy after some lean times in recent years.

Long-time believers

Though much of the kudos for Baltimore Avenue’s new buzz goes to UCD and other community organizations, like the Spruce Hill Community Association and Cedar Park Neighbors, it couldn’t have happened without neighborhood stalwarts like Amare Solomon, owner of the popular Dahlak restaurant at 4708 Baltimore Ave.

Solomon opened his Ethiopian restaurant in 1983, when he was working for Penn’s Dining Services. Back then, he said, “Nobody wanted to pass 42nd Street.” To fill his restaurant, he persuaded his friends at Penn—“always in a group, they wouldn’t come alone”—to visit Dahlak; then he would walk or drive them home.

The more businesses that open here the better, said Solomon. “What neighborhoods need is safety and eyes on the street.”

Another long-time Baltimore Avenue believer, Valarie Collier, who owns the Carrot Cake Company, just off the avenue on 47th Street, has noticed changes in the neighborhood, too. As well as improvements to the streetscape, she credits the shift to freshman walking tours that have brought Penn students further west in recent years. And that, she said, is “a big, big change.”

Originally published on March 18, 2004