Bakery reinvigorates Druid Heights with sweet rolls and art

Bakery reinvigorates Druid Heights with sweet rolls and art

BALTIMORE - A mural depicting historic events and figures of West Baltimore is displayed outside of the Avenue Bakery. (Miles Grovic/Capital News Service)


BALTIMORE – Since opening The Avenue Bakery to revive economic opportunities and Pennsylvania Avenue’s rich entertainment history, James Hamlin feels unsatisfied with the progress.

“This is a diamond in the rough,” Hamlin said. “In order to change Baltimore, to change the community, you have to change the environment that young people are growing up in.”

Hamlin opened The Avenue Bakery in West Baltimore in 2011, an extension of a broader cultural and community development project called The Royal Theatre & Community Heritage Corporation. The namesake Royal Theatre, now demolished, once hosted top entertainers such as jazz icon Billie Holiday. Hamlin’s project focuses on educating youth and developing local partnerships.

He said the neighborhood has declined since political disruptions after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death and the unrest following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray from injuries sustained in police custody.

According to Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance reports, Upton and Druid Heights’ 2021 median income was $23,780. That is a 72% increase from when the bakery opened in 2011. However, small local businesses have since closed. The neighborhoods had 212 businesses with fewer than 50 employees in 2021. It previously had nearly 300 small businesses that fit that criteria, according to the reports.

Hamlin is satisfied with the bakery’s ability to capitalize on a major industry in the city: tourism. The bakery serves as a stop on the Baltimore National Heritage Trail tour, allowing Hamlin to educate people on Pennsylvania Avenue’s legacy.

“The bakery was not a goal,” Hamlin said. “It wasn’t an aspiration or anything like that. It was a means to an end, to get people coming back to the historic community.”

Roy “Chip” Miller, a member of the Symphony Black jazz band, which performed at The Avenue Bakery in July 2023, has high praise for Hamlin.

“He’s an institution of Baltimore, on Pennsylvania Avenue,” Miller said. Besides performing at the bakery, Miller stops by occasionally on Sunday mornings to get a muffin or other baked goods.

Miller works in conjunction with Pennsylvania Avenue-based committees even though he lives in Northeast Baltimore. More small businesses, particularly focused on entertainment and the arts, would improve the area. Miller serves on an economic development committee and said neighborhoods surrounding the avenue are moving in a positive direction — albeit at a slower pace.

Hamlin said it is important for a business like his to have a diverse customer base that expands past the local community. He keeps a signing book with notes from previous customers at the front of the store.

While Hamlin’s business and nonprofit target tourists and host events around Baltimore, some locals feel left out. Warren Davis, who lives in Park Heights, said the bakery should be open more often for community members and he is not interested in the community events.

“People said, ‘I wonder, is that bakery open? It looks like it’s closed all the time’,” Davis said. “I’m not sayin’ he’s cutting the public out, but the public has got shorter time to gets things.”

The bakery is staffed by Hamlin’s family, including his daughter on Saturdays and his grandson regularly on other days. The bakery, which remains open Thursday through Sunday due to Hamlin’s retirement and the pandemic, was originally open five days a week.

Soon, Hamlin will release a photo montage in partnership with Tenyo Pearl, campus director of the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance at Coppin State University. The piece will highlight Baltimore’s hip-hop generation.

Hamlin opened the bakery to address community concerns and lack of opportunities for youth to earn money in Baltimore City. Hamlin has watched opportunities for youth thin out as he aged with the community.

“The only opportunity that you have as a young kid that wants a pair of Nikes or whatever is whatever the drug dealer asks him to do,” Hamlin said.

Hamlin hopes to pursue a holistic approach to community development. He said he has spoken to the Baltimore City government, the Baltimore Ravens and Under Armour in recent years in hopes of building a clubhouse, football field and a new Royal Theatre near the site’s historic location. Officials with the Upton Planning Committee did not respond to calls for comment about these plans.

Tyler Fullwood said the bakery feels like home and the history shared keeps him coming back. Fullwood, a senior at Coppin State University, said he attended a jazz series in the past.

His earliest memory of the bakery was being a freshman and feeling the bakery heavily supported students and the neighborhoods. He recalled visiting on a class trip.

“This community typically has a long, long history of food insecurity,” Fullwood said. “It’s nice to have something like this here in the community.”

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Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a student-powered news organization run by the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism. With bureaus in Annapolis and Washington run by professional journalists with decades of experience, they deliver news in multiple formats via partner news organizations and a destination Website.

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