Why there are no streets in ZIP code 21214 . . . . . . And what that reveals about 20th-century America

Robert L. Taylor

June 15, 1993|By Robert L. Taylor

AN informal survey of the thoroughfares in Baltimore's ZIP Code 21214 shows that it encompasses about 35 avenues, 10 roads, four drives, three terraces, three parkways, one boulevard, one place and one lane -- but not a single street!

This is not a mere oddity of nomenclature; to understand it is to understand an epoch in American life and, sadly, the decline from the geniality of 1920 America to the humorless heartlessness of today.

21214 was one of the early suburbs of this country. It was developed in the Wilson and Coolidge administrations, at first for only a few city blocks on either side of the No. 19 streetcar line.

Then, as increasing numbers of settlers acquired cars, old Nashes and Fords and such, it expanded, gradually taking over many of the farms that still existed within the city limits.

Baltimore was an entry port in the 19th century that attracted heavy immigration from Central and Southern Europe. Few Scandinavians came; they settled in the Midwest, where their descendants are still being lampooned by Garrison Keillor.

But Italians and Poles and Irish and Germans and Bohemians -- yes, yes, yes. These hard-up newcomers lived in blocks of interminable red-brick rowhouses, with no trees and no grass and a population density in those days of large families of 300 or more souls to a block. The narrow, congested thoroughfares in which they were uncomfortably jammed together were almost invariably called "streets."

But as the years passed and the children and the grandchildren of these pioneers accumulated a little money, these huddled masses yearning to breathe free longed for a little grassy yard for the children to play in, a yard in which they could plant marigolds and zinnias and nasturtiums from the little 10-cent packets of the Ferry Seed Co., or even aspire to the luxury of an occasional rose bush or hydrangea (known in the Baltimore of those days as a hygeranium).

And so, block by block, the little bungalows, with their coal bins, their iceboxes, and their crystal sets, gradually extended from the car line. It was rarely more than three or four blocks on either side. Walking from a street car in a summer storm in the low-technology clothing of the teens and '20s was not an experience that people wanted to protract. But at least the kids now had trees that they could play hide and seek behind in the long summer twilight.

The builders who opened these new grassy thoroughfares knew very well that these creatures newly escaped from congestion felt revulsion for all of the "streets" that they had grown up in, and in response created more than 60 new avenues, roads, terraces, drives and the like, but not one single street.

Without the safety valve of a flight to the relatively nearby suburbs of those days, a Baltimore that grew from 558,000 in 1910 to 804,000 in 1930 could hardly have survived. That may be why suburban development was looked on so approvingly in the '20s. People applauded the idea that second-generation Americans who had pulled themselves up should have a little more air and a little more grass and a more spacious area for the kids to shoot marbles. There seems to have been little of today's tedious and spiteful rhetoric about the boring 'burbs.

The population expansion continues. Between 1970 and 1988, the Baltimore metropolitan statistical area grew by 253,000 people, and the rate of growth was greater between 1980 and 1988 than in the previous decade.

What was to be done with this extra quarter of a million human beings? Should an iron curtain be built up around the existing settled area, and the problem solved by cramming six people into a house previously occupied by three? Should the building of any new house be rigidly forbidden?

Today, when an existing farm is disturbed in order to provide that a newly-formed family will have space for a small lawn and some marigolds, you are going to hear shrill screams of resentment about wicked "developers." The demonizing of developers provides a useful face-saving device for those who have a lofty conviction that the lower classes should be confined rigidly within their ghetto.

There is public-relations danger in saying openly, "No child should be granted access to grass and trees if it in any way interferes with the comfort of an owl."

So the wise person will train guns on the venal developer, who is said to be building the house only for sordid profit.

But I am no more shocked by suburban development in the '90s than I would have been in the '20s.

Robert L. Taylor writes from Baltimore.

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