How Pearl Harbor Changed Our Communities



ANNAPOLIS. — Annapolis -- World War II, for those of us in Baltimore, started as it did most everywhere else: with a radio news bulletin that shattered a Sunday afternoon in December. It was one of those afternoons people would remember where they were, and what they were doing when they heard the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

I was in the living room of my Edgewood Street house, on the sofa in the living room, listening to the radio. I jumped up when I heard the flash, and my parents rushed in from the kitchen. ''We're at war,'' I said, when they asked about all the commotion.

I don't really have a dramatic story to tell about that afternoon, where I was or what I was doing, because I was just part of an average American family caught in wartime. The drama was that the conflict we had followed so closely, listening to the radio news and tracking the German advances in the daily newspapers, had suddenly come to life for us. That afternoon of disbelief was a turning point for a lot of people, a time when young men my age would think without question of enlisting. The question was never if, but when you would enlist. That afternoon, and the days and weeks that followed, would also change Baltimore.

To see the differences in the city after that day, you would have to understand what Baltimore was like at that time. The most dramatic changes would be in the neighborhoods. In many ways, Baltimore really was a different place than what we know now. We really had a sense of community in those days. People didn't leave their neighborhoods often, because they were very oriented to their own areas of the city. You knew everyone on your block, people had great pride in their property, and you felt a sense of responsibility for your neighbors. It was a city where people didn't lock their doors at night, and when someone was sick in the neighborhood, you knew it. It was a city where you tried to be first one outside after it snowed to clear your own sidewalks and your neighbor's.

We shopped at Beck's Bakery and Thomas' Food Store, neighborhood places where the owners would carry people on the books, allowing them to settle up later. We went to our neighborhood schools, where the teachers really got involved with their students, and we attended local churches near our homes. A big adventure at that time was riding the streetcar to other parts of the city.

Longtime friendships were established in those city neighborhoods. One man, Neil Weldon, who lived across the street from us, was killed in the war. When I went overseas with the Army I found his grave and sent a photograph back home to his family, because that was just the kind of thing you did then. My father's daily letters to me in the Army had news about the neighborhood, a reminder of what we were fighting to protect.

We couldn't have known it that afternoon, but in the weeks and months following the Pearl Harbor attack the city and its neighborhoods would experience growth like we had not seen before, making room for the thousands of people who came to Baltimore to find work. Companies like Glenn L. Martin and Bethlehem Steel created thousands of job opportunities nearly overnight.

We talk about economic development today, but it seemed as if everyone had a job at that time because of the boom, and the hiring in the defense plants. Floods of people came from all over, a lot of them from the South, to work the shifts in plants making supplies and equipment for the Allied forces.

Where did all those people live? Many people, a lot of them not used to living in the city, moved to neighborhoods like Bolton Hill and Union Square, where the big row houses and brownstones were divided up into many apartments so they could fit more people inside. There were so many moving into the city that after they left -- either because the jobs dried up or because of the big push to move out to the counties -- the houses were left empty and run-down, creating slums in some places.

The crowding, and federal programs that offered guaranteed mortgages and money for highway construction, would convince some people to move out of Baltimore and into the counties in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It would be years before many of the neighborhoods recovered from the sudden increase and then decline in population, and some never really did.

When I think about the years right before and during the war, I think about our neighborhoods and how much they meant. Finding that sense of community would become so important to me as I got older and became involved with the city. That pride in your community, where you lived -- it was behind a lot of programs I worked on as mayor.

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