Turned

September 28, 1994|By STEPHEN SAGNER

The story is much like the one Barry Levinson tells in the movie ''Avalon.'' Both sides of my family arrived in Baltimore around 1900, during the great Jewish migration from eastern Europe. They lived for awhile in the tenements of east Baltimore where they began to build businesses, synagogues and social clubs.

During the 1920s, they moved northwest, to the neat row houses of Eutaw Place. In the 1940s, they went northwest again, to the single-family houses of Forest Park (in ''Avalon,'' the move to ''the suburbs;'' Levinson and my mother both went to Forest Park High School). Twenty years later, they migrated northwest once again: my great-grandparents and grandparents to the high-rise apartments and country clubs of Park Heights; the younger generation to the suburban sub-division of Pikesville.

The move continues today: My cousins and their children have gone further northwest, to Owings Mills and Reisterstown. Further ''away from Avalon,'' complains the grandfather in the movie.

Like its border cousins, St. Louis and Cincinnati, Baltimore is a bit schizophrenic. It's a slave city that fought for the preservation of the Union. Baltimore is occasionally ''mid-Atlantic,'' just another stop on Amtrak's northeast corridor from Boston to Washington. At other moments, it's a Southern city, having more in common with Richmond than with Philadelphia.

Perhaps its split-personality was most evident during the 1960s. Baltimore was a Jim Crow town like Norfolk and Birmingham. It ended segregation with relative quiet (local business interests probably acted on motives other than righteous moral indignation), and then it burned in 1968 along with Northern cities like Detroit and Newark.

For most of this century, ethnic blue-collar whites (Poles, Lithuanians, Irish, Germans) lived in the south and east Baltimore of the port, the Sparrows Mill steelworks and the Dundalk factories. Restrictive housing covenants insured that genteel Roland Park and Guilford would remain upper-class Wasp and Catholic. Jews stayed on the west side of what is now the Jones Falls Expressway, every generation moving further northwest to bigger houses, and away from blacks.

I think it was Eldridge Cleaver who said that violence is as American as cherry pie. So too is flight from what are politely called ''declining property values.'' At some point, the entrance of middle-class black families led to real-estate speculation, panic selling and ultimately white flight from many of the neighborhoods that my family used to call home. The dinner-table lines were probably always the same: ''if you let the good ones in, you know who'll follow.'' ''It's our neighborhood, not theirs.'' ''You know what they're like.'' Etc. Always us versus them.

The irony, of course, is that blacks have been in Maryland far longer than Jews or Poles or Germans. The state was founded in the 1600s as a Catholic refuge from Protestant persecution. A funny juxtaposition: white religious freedom and black slavery.

Jews are puzzled once again by black anti-Semitism. Jewish liberals supported civil rights, sent money to the NAACP, and marched with Martin Luther King. But they drew lines too: at the anger of Malcolm X, at the violence of the Black Panthers, at the possibility of black neighbors.

Eutaw Place, where my grandmother grew up with a hundred cousins and relatives, is now black. Forest Park, the childhood home of my parents, has ''turned'' as well.

For a number of reasons, my parents gave up on Jewish Baltimore. When I was 7, we moved to St. Louis; six years later, we went to Chicago. When I was 18, I up and left for New York. After eight years there, my wife and I moved to the Detroit area.

This pattern of settlement, flight and resettlement has been repeated in each of these places. In St. Louis, Jews moved out to the western suburbs of Olivette and Chesterfield. In Chicago, the most racially divided city I've ever lived in, Jewish families left the South Shore and Lawndale for the Northside and the northern suburbs (in essence, they switched from the White Sox to the Cubs).

In New York, this history was repeated in the Bronx, in Brooklyn and in part of Manhattan. (An Italian colleague once told me that my people had fled while his people had stayed and this was the true lesson of Howard Beach and Bensonhurst). My best friend in college grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, and my wife's family is from Bridgeport, Connecticut. It's the same story in both towns.

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