Concert by concert, ticket by ticket and tram by tram, Havre de Grace is transforming from a quiet community on the Susquehanna River into a regional arts hub for northern Maryland.
Since 2017, three new live performance venues have been established in the city or are under construction:
The historic 201-seat 1870 opera house began welcoming audiences again in 2017 after a $4.2 million renovation. The public facility provides a stage for touring artists as well as local bands.
The 299-seat private state theater in Havre de Grace reopened in early 2020 as a venue for alternative events ranging from wrestling to rock concerts.
And last summer, the city acquired a former high school auditorium and gym and began work to turn it into an 800-seat theater. Once construction is complete, the renowned STAR Center in Le Havre de Grâce will host larger-scale events. Programmers have already started booking concerts in the new venue; Tribute band EagleMania took the stage in July, while performer David Clark will bring his tribute band Billy Joel to the auditorium in August.
“After the Opera House reopened in 2017, Havre de Grace began to become an arts hub and tourist destination,” said Rebecca Jessop, Le Havre’s general manager of Grace Arts Collective, which programs events at the Opera House. “You could feel the energy rising.”
“Then the pandemic hit. All that energy never went away, but COVID-19 kind of put it on hold. Now it’s starting to come back. »
Jessop is excited about a recently unveiled restoration plan for downtown. It will mean short-term disruption, she knows: streets torn up and rerouted, favorite conveniences temporarily banned.
“But in the long run it will be worth it,” Jessop said. “It’s an incredible vision of what Havre de Grace could be.
It was clear to the planners that Havre de Grace had tons of potential. But for decades, that potential was buried.
“Until about five years ago, I would never have set foot here.” said Jared Noe, owner of the State Theater, the renovated venue that began life as an early 20th-century movie palace.
“There was definitely a stigma. We called it “Have a Disgrace”. It had a reputation as a town full of good old boys, a town where if the music wasn’t country, it wasn’t music.
Jessop traces the first steps toward change to 2008, when Havre de Grace became Harford County’s first arts and entertainment district, a status that offered tax incentives to artists and arts-related business owners in the neighborhood. (Bel Air was designated the county’s second arts district in 2011.)
In some ways, the city’s development as a cultural hub was a no-brainer.
Havre de Grace is about halfway between two major East Coast art centers: Wilmington, Delaware to the north, and Baltimore to the south. Touring artists traveling from destination to destination often welcome the opportunity to put on an extra show, Jessop said.
And from its beginnings, Havre de Grace has been a microcosm of key tensions shaping American society:
During the first Congress in 1789, Havre de Grace was under consideration to be the nation’s capital, according to historical records, losing to Washington, DC, by a single vote. Before the Civil War, he played an important role in the Underground Railroad that helped slaves escape to freedom. And in the 1930s, Havre de Grace was a smuggler’s paradise. The illegal liquor trade was so notorious that a fourth season episode of HBO’s prohibition-era drama “Boardwalk Empire” was set in the city.
Additionally, some of America’s most famous citizens have spent key times in their lives at Havre de Grace.
Orator and writer Frederick Douglass escaped to freedom across the city in 1838. Presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth grew up near Bel Air.
Jessop noted that the Booths belonged to one of America’s most renowned theater families in the 19th century: patriarch and actor Junius Brutus Booth (who excelled in portraying Shakespearean villains) and his gifted actor son, Edwin Booth. .
“Long before President Lincoln was killed, the Booths were an internationally renowned acting family,” she said. “The arts have always been part of Harford County.”
But it’s not just the city’s history that makes it a potential cultural hub. Jessop said Havre de Grace also has a lot of natural charm.
“Havre de Grace is really in a great location on the waterfront,” she said. “It’s an old town and there are plenty of walking opportunities. There are antique shops here and bed and breakfasts. It presents many opportunities for tourism.
Noe said the 2015 election of Mayor William T. Martin was a key force in the city’s cultural revival because it placed a prominent supporter of the arts at the top of the city’s political hierarchy.
“It was the start of a new era in Havre de Grace,” Noe said. “We finally have a city administration that understands that promoting the city is good, that development is good, and that events and tourism are good.”
Noe said Martin’s administration coincided with two new waves of cosmopolitan county residents.
Following the Army Bases Realignment and Closure Act 2005, he said, nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground was transformed into a “megabase”. As the first science and technology research center, it brought in workers from diverse cultures.
Additionally, the county has recently seen an influx of new LBGTQ residents, Noe said, many of whom are heading to Washington. He pointed to the success of the first Upper Chesapeake Bay Pride festival in Havre de Grace, which organizers said drew around 5,000 visitors to the city in 2019.
“We’re seeing this huge migration of a young, sophisticated population moving into Harford County,” he said. “They often come from other parts of the world and they have seen things there that they would like to see here.”
The restoration plan, which was released in April, outlined a vision for the city to include many of these in-demand amenities.
Among other things, Pennington Avenue, where the Opera House and the STAR Center are located, would become what the report describes as the city’s “civic backbone.” The report says the avenue would include a linear park with “art and storytelling opportunities woven into the space to reflect the history of the street and Havre de Grace.”
The Susquehanna River would be more closely connected to downtown with pedestrian and bike access points off Saint John Street, while a new pier off Green Street would allow boaters to moor their boats , disembark and visit downtown businesses.
Finally, Washington Street, which the report describes as “the beating heart of Havre de Grace” would continue to feature a mix of restaurants, beer gardens and boutiques, while also serving as the site for city festivals and parties. special events.
A new feature of city life – an electric streetcar service known as “The Tide” – was introduced in mid-May. Four carts traverse a 3.5 mile wide loop between Millard Tydings Memorial Park and the Susquehanna Museum at the Lock House during weekends and for special events. The service will be free for at least the first year, although officials say a small fee may be imposed later to help cover maintenance costs.
Rob Tucker, actor, director and drama teacher at Edgewood High School, believes Havre de Grace’s renewed investment in the arts has the potential to attract tourists and boost the town’s economy. But more importantly, he thinks it will encourage performers and viewers to stretch their imaginations and think outside the box.
“For a municipality, providing performance spaces like the Opera and the STAR Center is a real service,” he said.
“It’s a vehicle for creating art and ingenuity, and it helps move our community forward.”