New View of Baltimore Graphic history portrays working class

October 30, 1991|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

Imagine a history of Baltimore with scarcely a mention of Fort McHenry, Enoch Pratt, Johns Hopkins and the Fire of 1904, but with a whole chapter on the radical seamen who worked the city's waterfront in the 1930s, and another on the canning industry in Fells Point at the turn of the century. Instead of lauding the B&O Railroad, one of the pillars of the city's and state's history, the book harshly criticizes the railroad's policies toward workers that led to the famous strike of 1877 at Camden Yards:

"Safety conditions on the B&O were woefully inadequate. The job of brakeman, for example, posed danger to life and limb. A worker running along the roof of a freight train in order to turn the brakes, car by car, might find his life suddenly ended by a low bridge, or he might catch his foot in a switch frog or in the open rail end of a switch and be drawn into the turning wheels of the train. So difficult were the link and pin couplings between cars that a brakeman was considered either exceptionally skillful or extremely lucky to keep both hands and all ten fingers for very long."

Those words about workingmen come from "The Baltimore Book: New Views of Local History," which will be published in the next few weeks by Temple University Press. A collaboration of 12 local writers and historians, "The Baltimore Book" is a pointed attempt to present a side of the city that the book's editors say has been all but ignored.

"Until recently, Baltimore has been a blue-collar city, a city of many laboring women and men and the few for whom they labored," the editors write in the book's introduction. "Yet, with some welcome exceptions, its official history has been one of patriotism, war, and a few powerful white men."

"We want to make the people of Baltimore more aware of aspects of history that are not talked about as much -- ordinary people, working people," said Linda Zeidman, 46, a professor of history and economics at Essex Community College who is one of the book's three editors. "This book will fill in gaps of the historical record."

These "ordinary people" written about in "The Baltimore Book" include not only the cannery workers and the seamen, but also steelworkers in Sparrows Point, Dundalk and Highlandtown, mill workers in Hampden-Woodberry, workers in the clothing industry and blacks in West Baltimore.

"The Baltimore Book" provides a graphic, at times chilling, portrait of working and living conditions for generations of poor and working-class Baltimoreans.

In a chapter on working-class Fells Point, Linda Shopes, another editor of the book, writes:

"Poorly paid for their labors, with few other choices, and anxious to save for a better future, these Polish immigrants frequently crowded into unsafe, unhealthy houses. According to a 1907 housing investigation of a predominantly Polish block bounded by Broadway, Thames, Caroline and Lancaster streets, three or four households lived in houses intended for one family. Apartments were badly in need of major repairs, poorly lit, and inadequately ventilated and had no indoor water or toilets. 'An eight-room house contained seven families comprising thirty-six persons,' the study reported."

Robert J. Brugger, editor of Maryland Historical Magazine and author of the respected state history "Maryland: a Middle Temperament, 1634-1980," got an advance look at "The Baltimore Book" and liked what he saw.

"Historians of the city and Maryland, and indeed of any American city or state, for many years looked mostly at the experiences of the movers and shakers -- the people who ran the banks, institutions, the shipping firms and so forth," Mr. Brugger said.

"But it's important that we also take that view from 'the bottom up.' The book provides a corrective to old-fashioned history by telling us about ethnic groups that hadn't been written about much before."

The editors see "The Baltimore Book" not only as a history book but a guidebook, complete with maps and suggested tours. And, in fact, the book had its beginning in the People's History Tour of Baltimore, a decidedly different tour of the city that Ms. Zeidman and others began offering on an intermittent basis in 1982.

The tour organizers shared an interest in history from a leftist or radical perspective, and the sites they chose included many written about in the book: Camden Station, Sparrows Point, Hampden-Woodberry. The tours proved so popular that the organizers felt overwhelmed.

"We tried at first to train other people to run bus tours, but that didn't work too well," said Elizabeth Fee, 44, an editor of "The Baltimore Book" who is an associate professor in the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health. "We decided to write down information so people could take their own tour. We thought of it first as a small booklet. Then it became a large, sort of glamorous book."

Contributors were solicited among friends and professional acquaintances, and the chapters have an evident point of view.

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