Black owners breathe new life into Belair-Edison business district

When a client enters JNB Beauty on Belair Road, owner Tunde Tenabe greets them instantly. Warmly. Motherly.

Hurrying to help a customer, she lays out her inventory and even checks the weather to ensure appropriate clothing recommendations. She knows her fabrics, and she knows her sizes. Her motto for clients: “Everybody is Beyoncé.” That means ensuring each customer leaves looking and feeling their best.

“That dress is the truth,” Tenabe said to an early Saturday morning shopper. “This is a real standout piece.”

Tunde Tenabe at her retail clothing and beauty store, JNB Beauty, in Belair-Edison. (Robert Stewart/Capital News Service)

A native of Northeast Baltimore, Tenabe runs a retail clothing and beauty supply store in the heart of the Belair-Edison’s business corridor. For businesses, Belair-Edison — the third most populous neighborhood in the city’s northeast region — full of promises and challenges.

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Its main commercial corridor — Belair Road — offers businesses visibility and proximity to other shops. The neighborhood’s unique cluster of daylight rowhouses were built mainly from the 1920s through the 1950s, giving the area historic value and a population density greater than many other neighborhoods. That means potential foot traffic for businesses.

But the area saw a rapid demographic upheaval in the 1990s, when it shifted from majority white to majority Black. As of 2021, the neighborhood’s median household income of $46,000 is lower than Baltimore City averages, and 27.4% of families live in poverty, which is significantly higher than the city average, according to the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance data. In the 2000s, the neighborhood was hit hard by a subprime mortgage crisis, and the high rates of distressed home sales meant more neighborhood upheaval.

The neighborhood has Belair-Edison Neighborhoods Inc. (BENI), an active nonprofit that invests in homes, businesses and the community. BENI’s John Watkins said the area has a strong neighborhood association, Belair-Edison Community Association. And the neighborhood has many business owners invested in the community.

Shops line Belair Road in the Belair-Edison commercial district. (Robert Stewart/Capital News Service)
Shops line Belair Road in the Belair-Edison commercial district. (Robert Stewart/Capital News Service)

Conversations with Belair business owners provide insight into the hopes and concerns of merchants in one of Baltimore’s largely African American communities. At least 23 of Belair-Edison’s 50-plus businesses are Black-owned and at least 13 are women-owned as of March 2024, according to BENI.

Tenabe’s dreams for the business are inseparable from the neighborhood. “I would like to stay here,” she said. She dreams of fostering a space where local residents feel a sense of dignity and respect shopping close to home. “You don’t have to go all the way to Towson,” she said. “You can come right here where you at and feel good and be pretty.”

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Tenabe worked with her parents to find funding to purchase her store. She likes to walk around the neighborhood and shop at other businesses in the area. “When you’re more friendly with people, you relate with people, they’re gonna come more,” Tenabe said.

Like Tenabe, other business owners have invested their futures in Belair-Edison. Sydney Newton recently celebrated the grand opening of her shop, Sydney’s Ice Creams, but she has bigger plans. Newton, who learned complex dessert-making skills at a Baltimore-based French patisserie, imagines springboarding from ice cream and desserts into a more sophisticated high-end grocery store “like Dean & DeLuca,” she said.

Sydney Newton, owner of Sydney’s Ice Creams, hands over a cup of ice cream to Jade, 7, on April 24, 2024. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Newton credits her success in part to a strong family and circle of friends. Running the business can be deeply satisfying. After appearing on a morning television news report in February, she recalled, a group of elderly residents who had watched the program stopped by for her butter pecan ice cream.

“That just brought me so much joy,” she said. “Being a Black girl trying to do this, and they just seemed so proud, and I love that.”

Newton said visits from residents both in and around the neighborhood help her feel connected with the community. “I love talking with them,” she said.

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Down the street from Newton’s ice cream parlor is Tameka Rice’s QueenMeka House of Exotic Wear, where you can find sequined dance outfits, fishnet tops, handbags, jewelry and more. Rice said she tries to address deeper issues, such as poor self-esteem, with some women shopping in her store.

“I sit down and I have a conversation with them, and I ask them like, ‘Why do you feel that way about yourself?’” she said. Rice will discuss issues from skin complexion to weight, and encourage them to reject thoughts of ugliness. “I don’t care what your flaw is. No one is ugly.”

Rice, who grew up in East Baltimore, turned a home-based business into a brick-and-mortar shop and celebrated its one-year anniversary in March. Connecting with the community is a priority, she said. When she first opened, she “went to everybody’s business, introduced myself and let them know who I am.” That brought in new clients. Rice dreams of eventually getting a bigger shop and expanding beyond Baltimore.

Tenabe said fear of crime can prevent some clientele from coming to neighborhoods like Belair-Edison. The violent crime rate is slightly lower than the citywide rate, according to a Banner analysis of police crime data. Belair-Edison’s rate was 19.3 crimes per 1,000 residents in 2023. The citywide rate was 20.1. The Banner counted homicides, shooting victims, aggravated assaults, rapes and robberies as violent crime.

Tenabe remembers when shopkeepers knew everyone’s names. “We have to learn how to deal with one another. We can’t fear one another the way we do,” she said.

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For Tenabe, Rice and others, doing business in Belair-Edison means investing in the dignity of the neighborhood and its people — a process that involves business owners building positive relationships with the community.

“If we would stand with each other, embrace each other more, support each other more, compliment each other more, it would be so much better,” Rice said.

Data intern Adriana Navarro contributed to this story.

This story is part of a series of stories produced by the Urban Affairs Reporting class at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland in partnership with The Baltimore Banner. Students met with more than 70 small business owners and staff across Baltimore to understand how they survive in the era of big-box stores and online shopping.


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