When the sky didn't fall

May 28, 1996|By JACK L. LEVIN

DIRE consequences are predicted should 60 inner-city families be relocated to Baltimore County suburban neighborhoods. But the heavens didn't fall on similar occasions in the past.

The clergymen's protest against racial exclusion at Gwynn Oak Amusement Park, on July 4, 1963, was supposed to bring the destruction of thousands of businesses. I remember it vividly. My minister, Rabbi Morris Lieberman of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, was a leader of the protest, and I had to defend his actions against members of the congregation who disapproved of a rabbi practicing what he preached.

The three brothers who owned Gwynn Oak Park, Arthur, David and James Price, warned of the park's demise. That happened only later, when changing times -- home amusements such as television, giant theme parks such as Disneyland -- killed off the neighborhood family amusement park.

Integration of public accommodations spread rapidly after the Gwynn Oak protest. Already in 1959 Walter Sondheim and Martin Kohn had employed the first black female sales clerks downtown at Hochschild Kohn & Company. Now the other large downtown retailers gradually removed the rusting bars of discrimination.

The predicted white boycotts never developed. Armageddon did not erupt when bowling leagues, ice skating rinks and even swimming pools became racially mixed.

The pessimists may be just as wrong about mixed housing. Understandably, when lifetime investments are threatened by falling property values, the acceptance of different neighbors may take longer than the adjustment to integrated public accommodations, but it will come. It has been happening for many years.

Windsor Hills was first a white Gentile neighborhood, then Gentile-Jewish and, since 1955, white Gentile-Jewish-black. By 1959, whites were moving in with black neighbors. Windsor Hills demonstrated that integrated living can work, first as a middle- and upper-income community and, later with many low-income families.

In the Belair-Edison community of about 7,000 houses, where the ratio is 60 percent white, 40 percent black, leaders are opposing slumlord takeover and white flight. One of the neighborhood residents said, ''It's more like the real world. You have the opportunity to be exposed to different types of people.''

Once a slum kid in a project in Detroit nearly murdered another kid. The knife point was diverted by a large belt buckle. Otherwise, he might have spent most of his life in prison. His single-parent mother subjected him to a stronger discipline and moved with him to a better neighborhood.

If that neighborhood had been Baltimore County, howls of rage would have filled the press and the talk shows. But that boy and his mother brought a lifestyle not of crime, but of study and effort. That kid is now Dr. Benjamin Carson of Johns Hopkins, a world-renowned pediatric neurosurgeon.

Who would be the principal beneficiaries if such a motivated mother and son were welcomed by new neighbors in Baltimore County? Are we so fear-blinded that we perceive every poor black person only as a carrier of drugs, crime and falling property values?

As we celebrate the Gwynn Oak protest, it is good to know that one day white and black children can share the same neighborhood as well as the same amusement park, and that former housing-project residents may one day earn enough money to be accepted by whites as qualified neighbors.

Jack L. Levin is a Baltimore businessman.

Pub Date: 5/28/96

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