When parts of Baltimore City devolved into chaos shortly after the death of Freddie Gray while he was in police custody in 2015, the members of the Arch Social Club—founded in 1905 and incorporated in 1912—were there to help. The club’s current building sits at the intersection of Pennsylvania and North avenues, across the street from where the CVS drugstore was burned during the unrest.
“Then all of the media and all of the attention came here, so people came here every day on this corner,” explains Arch Social Club President Van Anderson. “We could not open for business, but we supported people needing to go to the bathroom, people needing to do interviews, this and that.”
That all changed after Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced charges for the six Baltimore City police officers who were involved in Gray’s arrest. “The press pulled out and left. What was left here was the traffic, the drug traffic, and it’s kind of still around here.”
Pennsylvania Avenue was once a bustling, bright spot for Black Baltimoreans. It was part of the chitlin circuit, a series of entertainment spots where Black musicians and entertainers could cut loose in segregated America. This part of Baltimore was lined with Black-owned movie theaters, concert halls, eateries and clothing stores. Now all of that is gone, but the club remains.
“We feel like we are the last of those live entertainment venues, here, still live and kickin’ on the avenue. That’s why what we want to do is use Pennsylvania and North Avenue as a place where we want to light up, illuminate and revitalize live entertainment,” Anderson says. “We want to transform the energy that has been projected of Baltimore. We want to transform that into an anchor of positivity. We are determined we are not going to move.”
The club got some help last October when it won a $118,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Anderson says that Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh and other leaders launched an all-hands-on-deck promotional effort to get people to vote for the club, and it came in 11th place.
Anderson says that they will use the money to continue renovations on the building, which was built in 1912 as a theater. They want to put up a marquee as a nod to the area’s past.
Anderson explains that they are able to stay alive by respecting older traditions but embracing newer trends, too.
“What we are seeing now is that there is a tradition that needs to be kept alive. And that tradition is live entertainment and music and dance. For example, our musicians. When I was coming up, the only way you could learn jazz was, we would have to go over Uncle William’s house or Uncle Ham’s house to learn jazz and blues. And so we want to keep that music form of performers and musicians being able to play our music,” he says.
They have modified the nights that feature music so that a DJ is stationed upstairs in the building, and live music is featured downstairs.
The club’s oldest member is in his 90s. But the men are still recruiting and attracting younger members, too.
“Because of that, we’ve been able to stay alive now for [over] 106 years, where most other organizations kind of go under,” Anderson says. “It’s a tough task sometimes, you know, and of course oftentimes they say Black men or Black people can’t stick together, or Black people aren’t going to do this or do that, but I think we are proof that we can do that, and we stick together to pull through.”
One of those younger members, 36-year-old Jahi Faw, says he came to the Arch Social Club after the men of the club helped out another activist group he was part of, called 300 Men.
“We were part of a youth program, and we seen a lot of the young boys who were in our program get either hemmed up by the police or actually getting shot and stuff in the streets, so we were trying to … stop the violence and put down the guns and march throughout the communities during the harshest times of the day,” Faw says. “Then the elders came over there and showed us how to do things a little better and how to organize, and once I found out they were from the Arch Social Club, I just wanted to come over and learn as much from them as possible.”
Faw says that there are so many young people in Baltimore—where the number of murders reached 309 in 2018—in desperate need of help. But groups like the Arch Social Club are standing in the gap.
“Every week now, we are training youth that are in this community who were once drug dealers, who were once drug users,” he says. “They come in here and they learn how to run the house; they come in here and they learn about how to get their liquor license; they come in here and they learn how to get their food license. They learn how to maintain or organize an event.
“They are learning from hundreds of years of experience now, and now they can go out and apply for jobs and things like that,” Faw adds. “For me, it’s like that is a beautiful thing because it’s taken some of the youth who are misguided, who don’t know how to express themselves, and it’s given them those tools to do that.”