December 22, 2016

A statue where Tupac Shakur first lived on the edge

Now that Tupac Shakur is being inducted into immortality at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Baltimore needs to recognize its place in his musical geography. Baltimore needs a statue to Tupac.

Through the label of "West Coast Hip-Hop", Tupac melded music and geography. Baltimore was the last place he lived in middle and high school before moving to the west coast.

His family lived in the kind of rowhouse Baltimore is known for, in what ought to be an attractive setting on Greenmount Avenue. It sits right on the edge of the working class Penn Lucy neighborhood, where it abuts the affluent Guilford neighborhood.

Chez Shakur is the second house from the left in these two groups of three - 3955 Greenmount Avenue -
as seen from the green Guilford courtyard across the street that masks the busy traffic barrier.
Greenmount Avenue is thus known as an economic and racial barrier. Unfair, overgeneralized and overplayed or not, it's regarded as "poor and black" to the east and "rich and white" to the west. Conflicts and contrasts are always simmering, just as they were in 2Pac's time between East Coast and West Coast hip-hop cultures. Ultimately this framed the narrative of his drive-by assassination in Las Vegas twenty years ago at age 25.

Labels like east versus west applied to hip-hop or Greenmount Avenue are very easy convenient concepts to hang onto, which accounts for their power. We address conflicts though geography as varied as sports where we root for the home team to politics where we choose our President through our state representations in the Electoral College. Economic aid is given to distressed neighborhoods or cities beyond what we give to distressed people.

Greenmount Avenue is a very long straight street which becomes York Road just to the north of Tupac's house and then extends northward all the way into Pennsylvania. As a pre-automotive city, streets with  that much continuity are rare in Baltimore. On the south end, Greenmount gets enticingly close to downtown Baltimore, but then gently pivots in front of the city's prison complex and then ends in Old Town, which has never recovered from the 1968 riots brought on by the assassination of Martin Luther King.

There are many very attractive houses and streets, and many dedicated residents on both sides of Greenmount Avenue, but that doesn't change the narrative.

Greenmount Avenue gets its power from its linearity. It's like a passive line in the sand which becomes a provocation. But Baltimore needs to use it to negotiate for good instead of bad, so we don't end up like Tupac did in Las Vegas.

Death as a career move

It is often said that in show-biz, from Elvis to Michael Jackson, death is a good career move. Baltimore has two other inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and they're dead too - Frank Zappa and Mama Cass Elliott. Of course, all three had to leave Baltimore to acquire fame and fortune. Frank Zappa's musical influence as a writer and performer transcended genres perhaps more than anyone in American history except Duke Ellington or George Gershwin, who were much more apparently rooted in American geography.

Mention should also be given to David Byrne of the "New Wave" Talking Heads who grew up in the Baltimore suburb of Arbutus and went to New York to become recognized, and is still very much alive.

Mama Cass came to fame by way of the Mamas and Papas folk-rock group, where John Phillips was the leader and songwriter, although Cass was their most distinctive, beloved and "weighty" singer. She was just starting to shed the "mama" moniker, which she didn't like, when she died. Even in death, people mischaracterized her, saying she choked on a ham sandwich, which was untrue even though it stuck.

Frank Zappa has gotten a statue in front of the Highlandtown library, which is very nice but has very little significance beyond its face value. He grew up on the other side of town.

Image result for frank zappa baltimore statue
Zappa statue in Highlandtown with Baltimore Mayor
Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (in blue), Zappa Family and others. )
Frank Zappa's statue does, however, serve as a precedent and prototype for what should be done for Tupac Shakur. The most striking thing about it is its verticality, which creates an appropriately "larger than life" aura. But it does not command attention from passers-by, whether walking or driving. It's easy to ignore, unlike Zappa himself. Maybe that was intentional, conveying that Zappa didn't quite fit into Highlandtown's commercial branding strategy.

The stakes are higher for the legacy of Tupac Shakur. Statues are an element of geography, and geography played a major role in his life and musical career. In turn, race itself plays a prominent role in geography, especially in Baltimore and especially on Greenmount Avenue.

Meanwhile, the city is still engaged in a great municipal reappraisal of our historic Civil War monuments. Who among the statues are capable of withstanding 150 years of scrutiny? A who among them will now be declared unworthy and dismantled? The Mayor ducked the verdicts of her task force before she left office last week, leaving the statues in limbo.

The kind of controversy Baltimore appears to be capable of resolving is whether last year's Freddie Gray "Black Lives Matter" rioters should be called "thugs". After much debate, the answer is apparently "no". But of course, 2Pac had no qualms about using words like "thug", as well as a lot stronger words, including that one that begins with an "N".

Ah, but he's an artiste. His zeal for freedom of expression against "political correctness" was something he had in common with Frank Zappa, who once testified as such to Congress.

Statues to both Frank Zappa and Tupac Shakur will thus have to withstand another 150 years of scrutiny and reappraisal against constantly changing political standards.

The Best of 2Pac - Pt. 1: Thug
"The Best of 2Pac: Thug" album cover

Where to put the Tupak Shakur Statue?

Baltimore is a big city with lots of nooks and crannies in which to install statues. But Tupac needs to be noticed and reckoned with. He should also have geographic context. Context, however, is a multiple edge sword. Explanatory context was supposed to resolve the Civil War monument controversies - add some explanatory text saying that of course don't believe in slavery anymore and have evolved into far superior human beings. Of course.

The most obvious candidate location is the wide median on 33rd Street in the middle of the Waverly business district just a few blocks south on Greenmount from the Shakur House. But can Waverly withstand the Tupac brand as well as Highlandtown dealt with Zappa?

I'd say the answer is a resounding "No". Waverly's biggest retail plum over the past 50 years since James Rouse built the Waverly Towers shopping center at 29th Street was to get a Giant Supermarket, but the design turned its back to the entire rest of the business district. Most recently, Charles Village, the ivory tower Johns Hopkins University neighborhood just to the west decided it needed to expand its own retail district - which has turned out to be at the expense of its students shopping in Waverly.

Waverly probably can't withstand sharing its iconography with 2Pac.

If not Waverly, then where? Upton is the place where a nascent African-American Historic District has been gestating for many decades (while its history continues to crumble or be demolished). But that's a long way from Greenmount Avenue. In a city that's two-thirds black, do we still put everything that's really black all in one place?

Then there's "historically black" Morgan State University which is not too far east. That would probably work politically in an antiseptic ivory tower kind of way. Would Tupac approve?

It was previously proposed by one of my dear blog commenters that the city put it in a park which I had proposed at North Avenue and Charles Street, which is now undergoing a funky organic "arts district" kind of gentrification, near three colleges - Johns Hopkins, Maryland Institute and University of Baltimore. It's culturally and racially neutral territory. and is at the very geographic center of the entire city. This would work!

But the best site for a Tupak Shakur Shrine is...

... just two blocks north of Tupak's house near where Greenmount Avenue becomes York Road at Northway.

At this point, York Road becomes about ten feet wider than Greenmount, so the city installed a grass median strip a few years ago in an attempt at "beautification". It also becomes a commercial rather than a residential area, with the kind of nondescript businesses that have no cultural identity whatsoever. In other words, it's racially neutral territory.

The downside is that with no residents and no cultural identity, there is no constituency for maintaining any beautification, so the new median has become a mere nondescript grassy patch.

York Road looking south from Northway. Tupak's Greenmount Avenue neighborhood begins
 up ahead where the road narrows, the median ends and the trees get more plentiful.

So this median strip is the perfect place for a tall Tupac shrine that everyone must see but no one will have to confront.

But the piece de resistance is directly at the intersection of York Road and Northway - a magnificent stone wall that separates the exclusive Guilford neighborhood to the west from York Road to the east.

The wall is entirely symbolic. It is totally open for the free movement of pedestrians and vehicles (one-way outbound away from the neighborhood). The wall exists only as a beautiful icon. It's the kind of beauty Donald Trump sees when he when waxes poetic about his proposed wall at the Mexican border and which Hillary Clinton describes as Un-American and The Pope describes as sinful (as if The Vatican doesn't have a wall.)

Another alternative is a block closer to Chez Shakur at the intersection of Underwood Road, but it is in a more natural vegetative state and is more residential, with no iconic wall and less room for the shrine.

The Northway wall looking west into the affluent Guilford neighborhood from York Road

At Northway, there is plenty of room for the adjacent York Road sidewalk to be upgraded as a viewing area for the statue with explanatory verbiage. An endowment fund can be established by affluent liberals to pay for maintenance and to manage any artifacts of "self-expression" left by tourists and fans.

This is the wall that young Tupak Shakur grew up with before he joined the war between East Coast and West Coast hip-hop.


  1. I think instead of a statue of Tupac himself, another monument like a sculptural version of "The Rose that Grew from Concrete" would have better symbolism for the city. Also, that might better justify placing the memorial on the West Side (of Baltimore)!

    1. He also went to Baltimore School for the Arts, so maybe Mt Vernon would work, lol, but more seriously, that school is not far from MLK Blvd. which might also be symbolic. Not for the namesake but for the divide between "real Baltimore" and downtown.

    2. Thanks for writing! I agree, from my view as a city planner (as opposed to a 2Pac fan) that MLK Boulevard would be a GREAT place to put the monument - it's real Baltimore as you say, and it's highly visible and public to everyone.

      MLK Boulevard also really needs to be redesigned - as I've contended in previous posts. See: and

      MLK doesn't have to be so divisive. The demographics on either side of it are much less varied than Greenmount Ave. But the way the road is currently designed, it's not much of a tribute to Martin Luther King either. (Chris Rock did a hilarious monologue about streets in various cities named after MLK.)

      And yes, 2Pac's "The Rose that Grew from Concrete" would make a great theme to create a context. Sounds like a great idea! Old pre-hip-hop folks like me would identify it from the 1950s Ben E. King song, "Spanish Harlem" about that same rose, which became a standard covered by many artists, notably Aretha Franklin and even the Mamas and Papas with our Cass Elliott. 2Pac definitely learned his music history growing up!