Veteran activist looks forward, not back Frances Froelicher, 50 years after founding group, still seeks solutions.

June 17, 1992|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Staff Writer

The first thing Frances Morton Froelicher tells you is what she doesn't want to talk about.

Yes, yes, yes, there's this reception tonight to honor her 80th birthday and the 50th anniversary of her founding the Citizens Planning and Housing Association. Yes, she's proud of her work going back to the 1930s, when she was a freshly graduated social worker tromping through East Baltimore's alley slums.

But enough about that.

"I don't know what you want to talk about," she tells a visitor, "but I'll tell you what I want to talk about, which is my prescription for the future."

She was seated in one of the two offices she has set up in her Bolton Hill home. In the front parlor are the formal period pieces handed down from her grandparents. In the back office are portraits of her late husband, Hans Froelicher, a Park School headmaster, and stacks of books and files collected over her decades of community organizing.

Tomorrow, Mrs. Froelicher will be in Pennsylvania, at the nature preserve she runs when she is not in Baltimore. But what she wants to talk about now is what she's talked about for years -- ordinary people joining together to fight for change.

"It's an emergency," she says of life in the city. "We can't go on like this. The attitudes are bad again.

"Everybody should start talking about the issues we think are taboo -- drugs, guns, race relations. You have got to not be afraid of controversy, peaceful controversy. And we've got to get the suburban people involved in the cities. They don't want to come near the cities because the cities are filled with crime.

"But we've got to change that," she said. "We've got to get everybody involved."

She's been getting people involved since the 1930s, when she graduated from Smith College and returned to Baltimore. As a case worker for the Baltimore Department of Public Welfare, she was amazed to find what life was like in slums that festered not far from her birthplace at Preston and Biddle streets.

This was a time before social programs, before public housing, before neighborhood associations, before welfare-rights groups, before a housing code to enforce standards. Twenty-six thousand Baltimore houses still had outdoor plumbing. Families lived in shacks built on alleys alongside open sewers.

"It was accepted," said Samuel Hopkins, a Baltimore civic leader and a longtime CPHA volunteer. "People knew about [slums] but didn't pay much attention to them. No one talked about it," he said. Mr. Hopkins is co-chairman of tonight's event with Walter Sondheim, who oversaw the city's downtown renaissance as chairman of its redevelopment agency.

Mrs. Froelicher, as a social worker in her 20s, spent a year studying the worst areas, Wards 5 and 10, walking through "alleys inside of alleys that no one would ever go into," cataloging the misery in which Baltimoreans lived.

"Then what she did was get a lot of people interested in self-help," Mr. Hopkins said. She insisted her friends pitch in. In 1940, she formed the Citizens Housing Council, which she opened in her home to promote low-income housing. In 1941, the group joined with the Citizens Planning and Redevelopment Organization, and CPHA was born.

Through the years, CPHA recruited thousands of volunteers -- men and women, white and black -- to work on urban issues. They pushed City Hall until the housing department was reformed, until the zoning board was changed, until health and building codes were enforced, until a housing court was established to ride herd on slum landlords.

As executive director of CPHA from 1941 to 1969, she was a civic nudge, carrying a slide show of slum conditions from schools to churches to City Hall.

She forced people to confront the bad news and then marshaled volunteers. to work on solutions.

"If people think they're going to accomplish something, they work," Mr. Hopkins said.

Among the volunteers: then-City Councilman William Donald Schaefer, developer James Rouse and Robert C. Embry Jr., who went on to be the city's housing commissioner.

City Hall responded to CPHA's efforts because "government is very open to people that care about issues and have thought about them and have no economic interest in them," Mr. Embry said. "The problem is how few people in places like Baltimore are interested in issues that aren't going to affect them directly."

But Mrs. Froelicher is determined to make them interested. "I think that everybody -- I don't care who you are, an individual, neighborhood, a business -- should decide what you can do to help in this crisis," she said.

"When I started this thing, everybody said, 'Oh, Frances, it's hopeless.' But nothing's hopeless. We've got a chance."

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