In the market for memories History: Diversity conference stops, looks, listens at cross streets of Baltimore's past, present.

November 15, 1996|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

East Monument Street at noontime bristles with the energetic life of a crossroads bazaar on some cross-cultural trade route.

Johns Hopkins med students, technicians, doctors, even patients bounce out onto the street, heading for Northeast Market in search of spicy, greasy hamburgers, hot dogs, fried chicken, fried fish and french fries, the sort of fare not on the hospital's medically correct menus.

Trash men on break sop up the same flavorsome calories and cholesterol. East Baltimore moms browse the street with their kids in tow. Young women get their hair done, their nails done, their teeth done. Young men hang out. Pensioners count their coupons.

You can get a haircut at Monument Barber, buy a television at National TV, get it repaired at Monument TV Repair, hock it at Steve's Market Brokers. Shops stretch east and west from Northeast Market in a business district more "souk" than shopping mall.

Into this bustling midday clutter, Efrem Potts, sounding like the last local guide searching for landmarks of his lost society, leads a little band of urban explorers.

"I am the only remnant of the merchant families that operated stores on Monument Street in the '30s and the '40s and the '50s and the '60s," says Potts, 69, as brisk and full of energy as the street where he's spent most of his life.

His companions on this expedition are University of Baltimore instructor Jessica Elfenbein and the students from her public history seminar. They are studying East Baltimore, and Efrem Potts is one of their "mentors" drawn from the community.

Elfenbein's seminar in public history is new this year at the University of Baltimore. Public history as an academic discipline dates only from about 1976 and the U.S. Bicentennial celebrations.

"Public history," she says, "is history generated for an audience outside the university."

That's where fellows like Efrem Potts come in. In Elfenbein's seminar, the mentors are the equivalent of university scholars. Most earned degrees in that ancient School of Hard Knocks, although Potts also holds a B.A. from Hopkins and an M.B.A. from UB.

The seminar meets in the neighborhood. "Instead of bringing community people to the university," says Elfenbein, "we've come to the community."

Today and tomorrow, however, that relationship will be reversed, as Elfenbein leads a two-day conference called "Making Diversity Work: 250 Years of Baltimore History," sponsored by UB and Coppin State College.

The conference, which opens tomorrow at UB and continues Saturday at Coppin, is rather like Elfenbein's East Baltimore seminar writ large.

Twenty-two scholars will present "cutting-edge research on the struggle of Baltimoreans to come to terms with class differences and diversity -- racial, ethnic, religious, gender, cultural -- throughout their history."

Joining in the program are the Pratt Library, Johns Hopkins Press, City Life Museums, Maryland Historical Society, Museum of Industry and the B&O Railroad Museum. So far, 230 people have registered for the conference; the registration fee has been kept deliberately low: $15.

"The theme is to make diversity work," she says. "So you don't want to exclude people. You can't get dialogue going if the people you want to talk to aren't there."

City living

Elfenbein is passionate about the value of public history. Perhaps because of her background.

She grew up in northern New Jersey, graduated from Barnard College in New York City in 1984 and came to work here for the News American.

She became a deputy press secretary for William Donald Schaefer, worked on the city's Bicentennial Birthday Party and stayed on at City Hall after Clarence "Du" Burns became mayor. She earned a master's degree in American Studies at George Washington University in Washington, then went to New Haven while her husband, Robert Feinstein, went to Yale Law School.

They came back to Baltimore, committed to city living. Elfenbein completed her doctorate in history last June at the University of Delaware, and joined UB this year.

Virtually ever since, she's been helping organize this weekend's conference, while taking her seminar into the community to learn its history on its own turf.

Elfenbein started by recruiting a variety of neighborhood mentors, with help from the Historical East Baltimore Community Action Coalition. They include Lucille Gorham, the longtime community activist; Hattie Harrison, a delegate to the General Assembly from the Eastside; Francis Brown, a retired steelworker, union member and parishioner at St. Francis Xavier Church, the country's oldest African-American Roman Catholic congregation; and Father John McLaughlin, pastor of St. Wenceslas Church, once home parish to Baltimore's now scattered Bohemian community.

Today, Efrem Potts is on stage, weaving the public history of Monument Street out of the threads of his life. He reads the storefronts like an archaeologist studying the strata in an urban dig.

On the street

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