Miss Jennie's Crusade

March 28, 1993|By Patrick A. McGuire

The city paid neighbors to move away. The school closed. The buildings decayed. But someone stayed behind. Now she's fighting for the 17 families who still call Fairfield home.

Look at her fingers. Musician's fingers if ever God glued digits to a hand. Elongated slivers of ebony -- delicate, splendid, powerful. They have coaxed harmony from church organs and pianos almost since forever, and now at the age of 90, an age when most fingers are trembly and uncertain, they behave like children, scrambling excitedly around the exotic shape of a guitar neck for the first time.

But these are also fingers that never had the luxury of making only music. They have unloaded shoes from railroad cars during the first World War, pounded on doors looking for work during the second. They have gripped the wheel of a city cab, wielded the sharp pencil of an insurance agent, all in the act of making a living for their owner. They have buried a daughter and a son. They have shown two husbands the door and accepted one of them back; finally, after half a century, they gently laid him to rest as well.

FOR THE RECORD - PLEASE READ MEMO.

Every morning without fail, they fling themselves to the reaches as Miss Jennie Fincher, their exacting owner, conducts the vigorous ritual ingrained from her days as a Girl Scout: Arms out, arms in, arms up, arms down, arms out, arms in, arms up, arms down . . .

"I also eat whole-wheat bread," notes Miss Jennie, an index finger lightly punctuating the breeze.

Those fingers, which have sewn and gardened and covered her face in moments of joy and surprise, are fussing now with a curly, gray wig, pulled over a head of frizzy, close-cropped white hair. Miss Jennie cannot help laughing at herself as she peers into the rear-view mirror of her Ford van as she backs out of her driveway in the remote South Baltimore community of Fairfield.

"You see what happens when you get to be 90?" she asks. "You get old!"

For 79 of those years she has lived in Fairfield, the once-picturesque jewel of South Baltimore. It has clung to the squat, heavily industrialized peninsula of land between the Patapsco River and Curtis Bay for more than a century, although the grip grows weaker by the day. Only 17 families remain now in a community that once numbered 4,000 and boasted a work force of more than 20,000. The city has encouraged people to leave the area to its inevitable total industrialization by buying their homes and paying for their relocation. Most have done just that, but not Jennie Fincher, not even when the public housing project shut down a few years ago and soon after the only school in the area closed its doors.

"They told me uptown, 'Why don't you move out?' " she says. "I told 'em, 'Because I don't want to move out.' This is a neighborhood where everybody knew everybody else. When anything happened, everybody was together."

But there is no longer an "everybody" in Fairfield. Today, as diesel after diesel rumbles past her front door, hauling chemical cargoes to and from the tank farms that begin just across the street, Miss Jennie Fincher is, practically speaking, alone. She is not just the last of the Fairfield Improvement Association, she is the Fairfield Improvement Association. Yet those strong fingers of hers hold on tight.

If you head northerly toward the Harbor Tunnel and look to you right as you approach the tube, an imposing phalanx of oil tanks obstructs your view of Jennie Fincher's home and the others along Chesapeake Avenue and Tate Street.

Fairfield was the place people went on a Sunday to take the air, to picnic, to stroll by the edge of the river. But the days when local hotels offered pig barbecues and prize fights were a hundred years ago. The area's geography made it an ideal place for heavy industry and in the early part of the century the Maryland Chrome Works, the Rasin Monumental Fertilizer Co. and the Impervious Product Co. became Fairfield fixtures, drawing as many as 2,000 workers daily to the area.

Yet even as the area became dominated by factories and chemical plants, the quiet neighborhood remained, boasting poplar-lined streets and an independence the rest of the world found almost unsettling.

"There is no color line in Fairfield," noted an observer, with some amazement, in a 1911 Sun story. "The blacks call the whites by their first names and the whites, fraternally, greet the blacks in the same spirit. They eat together and live together. Fairfield makes its own laws, settles its own disputes, cleans up its own bloody sawdust and ignores civilization."

Civilization ultimately returned the compliment with its latter-day indifference toward the area, but not before World War II, the heyday of Fairfield. Two facilities -- Maryland Dry Dock, then the largest ship repair yard in the country, and the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard -- employed 20,000 workers there. At the start of the war, a 300-unit, cottage-style housing project was built along Chesapeake Avenue to house soldiers and their families.

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