Ghosts of the 1950s


October 05, 1991|By ARTHUR DAN GLECKLER

Lately I've felt as though I were seeing some ghosts of the Baltimore of the 1950s.

I did not live here then; but when I arrived in 1962, I heard about them: The block-busting, the dying of churches and schools, the trashing of streets and morals, the terror and sorrow that come when neighborhoods are ripped apart and all the ''responsible'' (I think the word then was ''respectable'') people leave.

The Northwood movie theater was being integrated in 1962, and people were furious over this invasion of the rights of business to select its clientele. In a demonstration at the segregated Gwynn Oak Amusement Park, a Roman Catholic archbishop, Protestant and Jewish leaders marched together and were arrested together. All up and down Baltimore and its suburbs, one heard predictions of doom for urban life and rows of ''For Sale'' signs appeared in many blocks of many communities.

It all seems very tame now, but it was very upsetting then.

A few years later, when what is now called ''gentrification'' started slowly, in a handful of Baltimore neighborhoods, it built on this shaky foundation of bad memories and ill will. Banks flatly bTC refused to make mortgages on city homes. FHA lenders considered nothing but new houses in the suburbs. So much had ''gone.'' So little city space was ''safe''.

And worse was yet to come.

Within a year of the start of Charles Village redevelopment in 1967, the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis sparked rioting in cities across the U.S.; Baltimore was one of them.

Believe me, it is one thing to be afraid of muggings, shootings and burglaries on a general basis, but quite another to have one's streets patrolled by armored trucks of national guardsmen; to smell the smoke of burning businesses within blocks of one's home and to answer frantic telephone calls from out-of-state relatives who have seen one's city overrun with looters on the evening news.

My point is this: Certainly there is more crime in Baltimore than ever. Certainly the air is polluted, the schools are distressing, drugs are more prevalent, there are more poor people and far more homeless. The economy is worse than at any time since the 1930s and arguments against city living are powerful.

But -- there are people living here! Not all are druggies. Not all are victims of violent crime. Not all are more terrified of their environment than are the commuters who risk their necks on the beltway. Not all feel their children are more at risk, socially, physically, intellectually and spiritually than their peers in outlying areas.

And a great deal of progress has been made. Much more respect for the architecture of the past, much more racial integration, have come since those dreamy days of the 1950s and 1960s, which were themselves scary and turbulent.

And finally, if ''gentrification'' has ''failed,'' is that what we're really aiming for in this country anyway?

Aren't we rather groping for a more balanced metropolitan society? A safer total society, where drugs and guns are less abused everywhere? Aren't there people, inside and outside the city, bravely working to improve the opportunities for everyone?

Instead of reviving ghosts, let's focus more on new solutions. Let's celebrate the progress of the past 40 years. Then let's celebrate and enjoy city and suburbs. Then we can cooperate on city-county issues with less rancor. Then everybody will have more options.

The day for urban breakthroughs is never over. Cities simply reflect the larger society they're in; and they have had an uncanny way of producing solutions as well as problems, throughout history, for all their stinking air, loose morals and dangerous streets.

Things will probably get worse; but they are also likely to improve in astonishing ways. So I say, instead of pronouncing doom, let's use our noodles. See what we can do. See beyond the ghosts. See America in microcosm.

Arthur Dan Gleckler is pastor of Wilson Memorial United Methodist Church.

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