With warmest memories, Baltimoreans talk of life in a more charming city

October 02, 1994|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff Writer

Every Saturday night, Baltimore tunes in to its past.

Callers to Phil Potter's nostalgia radio show, which airs at 9 p.m. Saturdays on WWLG-AM in Baltimore, reminisce about streetcars, organ grinders, building sleds out of fence posts, Babe Ruth. And, of course, the Colts.

"It's endless," says Mr. Potter, whose show debuted in 1991 and only attracted six phone calls in the first three months. Then, Mr. Potter invited the Haussners on the show -- the Haussners of Haussner's Restaurant, famed in Highlandtown for its strawberry pie and minimalist interior decoration. The radio station's phone bank lit up.

Baltimore's past never looked brighter.

A feeling hangs in the air and airwaves over Baltimore. And the feeling says this city memorializes and recalls its past to the point of -- what? -- to the point of charming peculiarity?

This is a town that longs to call the new football team the name of the old football team (C-O-L-T-S). This is a town where the Colts Marching Band didn't disband even after that Mayflower moving van did the deed in 1984.

This is a town where police still work on horseback, and a-rabbers still use horse-drawn carts to hawk cantaloupes through the city's alleys. This is a town that treasures its waitresses -- and the older they are, the more beloved. Go have lunch at the Woman's Industrial Exchange on North Charles Street.

Walk into any bookstore and check out the titles: "Lost Baltimore" and "Baltimore: When She Was What She Used to Be." At the "Collecting Baltimore" exhibit at the Peale Museum, visitors are asked to write what Baltimore means to them. Many of the note cards pegged on the bulletin board say such things as: COLTS. MEMORIAL STADIUM. MENCKEN. HAUSSNER'S STRAWBERRY PIE. BEEHIVES. EUBIE. THE BABE. POE. B&O.

Not much mention of, say, the Inner Harbor or Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

"We slip back into the past. It was always 'the good old days,' " says Dr. Jim Dasinger, a clinical psychologist and commentator for WBAL-AM. "We have a wonderful capability of repressing all the bad stuff [segregation, for example], but it's not just Baltimore. It's a community defense mechanism used by anyone."

Right. Everyone dabbles in the past. Ken Burns' heralded films for PBS, "The Civil War" and now "Baseball," are homages to the past. The 25th anniversary of Woodstock and the 50th anniversary of D-Day gave baby boomers and their parents an excuse to wallow in nostalgia.

And Baltimore isn't the only place that enshrines its past. All big ,, cities battling decline like to remember "better days."

Safe and sweet

But Baltimore's longing for its past somehow goes deeper. Perhaps, old memories are safer and sweeter than speculating on an insecure future or trying to drum up something glorious about the present.

For most people, these aren't the days of Barry Levinson's "Diner." These are the days of Barry Levinson's "Homicide."

Drugs, record murder rates and the ugly assortment of lesser crimes. Talk of armed guards in Little Italy and traffic barriers in Guilford.

The painted screens, city markets, white marble steps and rowhouses are home, but they can't make up for the violence and cash-starved schools. Every day more people head to the suburbs.

"It is sad. It's a passing of an era, a way of life," says true-blue Baltimorean and former mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, 65, whose father was mayor before him. "This is a family city. There has always been a real sense of family here, and a lot of that is slipping away."

Organizers of the new City Life Museums building are asking folks what makes Baltimore outstanding. They go to the malls and markets and ask people what museum exhibits should be used to reflect Baltimore. Crabs and marble steps are recurring responses, but something else emerges.

"There was a feeling of general decline of community, a fragmentation. A sense that people weren't concerned about their neighbors anymore or about their city," says John Durel, the assistant museum director. "There was a lack of optimism."

You can feel it at the Salty Dog saloon in Fells Point, where the Pabst Blue Ribbon is flowing. OK, trickling. Four people are in the 80-year-old bar, lighted only by the afternoon light off Fleet Street. Three of the people work here. The one customer, a man in his 60s and in a fedora, says he looks at the past every time he wakes up in the morning, if you know what he means.

"The older days were better," says 82-year-old waitress Lillian Lawrence.

The days before the yuppies started flooding Fells Point and giving her a bunch of lip, she says. This old dog of a bar is up for sale, and when it sells, Miss Lawrence says she'll head to DTC Florida. She hears they've got sand like sugar down there. Now, there's a future.

At the Hollywood Diner, used by Mr. Levinson to film "Diner," the jukebox features the oldies "At the Hop" and "Great Balls of Fire." But outside in the parking lot at Holliday and Saratoga streets, "The Club" anti-theft device has steering wheels in head-locks.

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