By Kara Thompson, Special to the AFRO and
Jaina Mosely-Lawson, Morgan State University Intern
The new development of Northwood Commons has built anticipation to an all time high for the community surrounding Morgan State University (MSU) and beyond.
As the construction continues and many of the storefronts appear, there are some businesses that are currently open while the rest of the shopping center is being finished.
Fulton Bank, McDonalds, and the BP gas station are in full swing and open for business.
The LiDL Food Market, a European-based company, had its grand opening in Northwood Commons on July 13. The first 100 residents in line received a gift card for free groceries, and Baltimore City Mayor Brandon Scott was on hand to welcome them along with MSU President David Wilson, Ed.D.
“Individuals want high quality food at reasonable prices, and that’s what Lidl is bringing to our community,” said Wilson, as the first patrons buzzed about the store. “It’s been too long- 50, 60 years. Communities shouldn’t have to wait that long for high quality food at reasonable prices.”
Nelly Blackman, the manager of McDonalds, expressed fond memories of the former Northwood Plaza that had a Save-A-Lot where the LiDL now stands, and Mia’s Beauty Supply store. Blackman said she was happy to see the new changes that were happening. As a Morgan alumna, she recalled going to the shopping center on Havenwood Road in Northeast Baltimore to shop, party, and hang out with friends.
Blackman believes that the significant changes will see a return of people looking to patronize the shopping center’s many restaurants and stores.
The plaza, located directly across from MSUs main campus, has connected generations of Morgan students who arrived with no transportation to clothing stores, lounges and restaurants further away from the campus. Over the years, the plaza declined and crime increased.
For Blackman, safety was a main concern. Year after year students found themselves in precarious situations as they walked from the campus and through the plaza to get to Marble Hall Gardens, the off-campus housing option on Loch Raven Boulevard. Blackman was happy to note that MSU’s police station will be in the new plaza.
The 2018 plan for the new development allocated 20,000 square feet of office space housing Morgan State University’s Office of Police & Public Safety, as well as space for a Barnes & Noble college bookstore with a Starbucks across from it.
The Northwood Plaza is even receiving support from Gov. Larry Hogan’s initiative to transform Baltimore City neighborhoods through Project CORE (Creating Opportunities for Renewal and Enterprise). The project is an effort into making the city a beautiful place.
David Bramble, managing partner for MCB Real Estate, said “this project is a true example of what is possible when neighborhoods,community, government, and private interests collaborate.”
A contentious history
For many years, Northwood Plaza was a segregated shopping center that developers chose to build right next to a historically Black college which preceded the strip by decades. A preliminary drawing for the plaza was created in 1948, but Morganites had been settled on the current campus since 1917.
Starting in the late 1940s, hundreds of Morgan State, Johns Hopkins and Goucher college students began participating in sit-ins and other peaceful protests in the name of equal rights. The protests culminated in mass arrests, but the students refused to give up until all races could enjoy the shopping center, sit in Northwood Theatre and eat on the rooftop of the Hecht’s department store.
In 1975, the plaza was sold to its current owners, Paul Diamond, David Diamond, Ben Schuster and Sam Gloger. The partners attempted to redevelop the shopping center, including major renovations in 1992. In 2018, it was decided that the shopping center would undergo a $50 million redevelopment plan.
One of the lead partners of the redevelopment is Morgan State University, the same institution that past developers built a brick wall to keep out.
Today, students of MSU are learning in brand new, state of the art buildings where segregated stores and restaurants once stood.
“Morgan students marched, protested, and sat-in for the simple right to buy a cup of coffee, or to see a movie. Then, over 350 of them went to jail for that right,” said President Wilson, adding that in 2022 many of the business owners are people of color.
Wilson also told the AFRO that “this particular supermarket is erasing a food desert” that formed after the shopping center stopped fighting integration and desegregated.
“When the students finally got the shops to open their doors to them, all of them dried up and moved away because they still didn’t want to serve Blacks,” he said.
After the hard fought victory for future students, those who desegregated the shopping center watched as it became a derelict, largely abandoned property with few options. Today, they rejoice as it comes back to life.
“Just look around here and you see an incredible coming together of Northeast Baltimore, across races, across ages,
] across genders. This is what a community is. A community is a collection of individuals and institutions that care about each other, that support each other, that are going to work together forever and prove it,” said Wilson. “That’s what it means to me, to be the president of Morgan and be at the epicenter of this culturally inclusive and relevant development of this particular sacred space.”
Trina Matthews had tears in her eyes as she shopped on opening day in the LiDL Food Market. “It’s been a long time,” said the 51-year old Baltimore City employee. “I watched the last market go down hill. You don’t know how amazing this is for me. I can walk here. They have everything I need-including plants.”
“I’m not going back to Safeway,” said Matthews. “I can walk here.”
This newly developed Northwood Commons is now 80 percent occupied with businesses, including Harbor Bank of Maryland, a Black-owned bank.
One of the businesses coming to Northwood Commons is Tropical Smoothie Cafe, run by Alesha and David Magby. This location will be the franchisee owners’ fourth location, and is set to open sometime in August or September. Both Magbys are graduates of Morgan State University.
“We want to be examples to the young ladies and gentlemen in the area,” said Magby. “For our staff, we stress the importance of education being important and whether pursuing higher education or educating yourself on an entrepreneurial idea, self-doubt does not bring you closer to your dreams and patience brings wisdom and virtue.”
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