Pictures of past show us where we are today

January 06, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Jacob Glushakow's Baltimore pictures have the feel of vanished civilizations: an Aisquith Street graveyard where the tombstones resemble some forlorn gathering of lost souls remembering better times; an East Baltimore poolroom with a pot-bellied stove in a corner; a Lombard Street poultry stall where you can practically hear the doomed chickens squawking, "Why me, Lord? What have I ever done to deserve such a fate?"

This is the closing week for "An Eye for East Baltimore," the exhibit of Glushakow's paintings and drawings at the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland, on Lloyd Street just off the remains of what we used to call Corned Beef Row on Lombard.

Talk about vanishing civilizations: On Lombard Street, where once there were grocery stores and delicatessens and sidewalk stalls, there are now just a couple of delis, and multitudes of ghostly echoes.

And this is what makes Jacob Glushakow's collection not merely a vision of the past, but a great eternal reminder: Cities don't die, but the pieces get rearranged. The organism skirmishes with itself, endlessly. It's not always a pretty sight, but the struggle itself becomes a kind of proof of the continuing life force.

Of his 1941 pencil and ink sketch, "Slum Clearance," portraying Fayette and Broadway, the 79-year old Glushakow says, "It certainly was change, to see what you had long been familiar with suddenly uprooted. It seemed to be so permanent, and suddenly before your eyes, it's demolished. It's upheaval, for good or bad."

Upheaval: Outside the Glushakow exhibit now, on Lloyd Street, come two women pushing a child in a stroller. It's a bitterly cold morning. Behind them comes a man in some state of emotional raggedness, screaming obscenities at them. Vagrant wads of trash blow down an alley behind him, where clusters of men stand about and await the whims of fate.

A block away is the high-rise Flag House housing project, scarred by many of our modern urban ills. The residents are black. Some whites will tell you that skin color is the root of all trouble. They happen to have short memories.

Of his 1939 painting, "Light Snowfall," at Eden Street and Fairmount Avenue, Glushakow says, "Originally, way back, around the turn of the century, this had been a largely German neighborhood, but they faded out as more Jews moved in. . . ."

Of his 1956 painting, "Broadway Market," he says, "When you got this far down, you were in a Polish neighborhood. We felt about the Poles the way the Serbs feel about the Croatians. We sort of sensed that the Poles were anti-Semites. . . ."

Always, America has come with a sense of cross-cultural wariness. In public, we talk a good game of melting pots and such, but our actions tend to lag behind. Today we talk mostly of racial unease, exploited by white and black manipulators, but this is just a variation on a theme: All of us are still figuring out how to get along with all the rest of us.

One door away from the Glushakow exhibit is the Lloyd Street Synagogue, the third oldest in the country, its doors still open to visitors. But it's a vision out of yesterday. The Jews arrive only on brief pilgrimages, and then retreat to suburbia.

Most of the other whites have fled the neighborhood, too. This is where Jacob Glushakow's insights become useful: His works have a sentimental feel -- "Yes," we tell ourselves, "weren't those the days" -- but they're sentimental only if we're not paying attention.

In a pencil sketch of Baltimore and Eden streets, from 1940, he's got a black kid shining shoes. On his shoe box, it says five cents for a shine. But notice the kid's feet: He has no shoes himself.

In Glushakow's 1939 oil, "The Pool Room," something's amiss: One fellow leans over a table, but it's a newspaper in his hand, and not a pool cue, and his joyless face leans against the other hand, while a guy puffs on a cigarette behind him.

"It would be open till midnight and after," Glushakow says of the old room. "Guys would come around and just exchange gossip, stories, and this and that. Some were employed, some weren't. You could feel the stagnation of souls, sitting around there brooding."

Good old days, huh? In some ways, maybe. But, in the fundamental ways, Glushakow reminds us, we don't change so much. We just rearrange the furniture, and the faces, while we keep trying to figure out how to live with each other.

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