It's time to stop razing put past Conserving our past, communities will help us all in the future

March 09, 1997|By Andrew Reiner

THE NEWSPAPER photograph was an all-too-familiar image. Yet it sobered me as if I had seen it for the first time: bulldozers churning up the field in front of a pre-Civil War-era Cockeysville farmhouse, readying to replace yet another relic from Baltimore County's past with a crop of new homes. What bothered me most about this scene was that prejudice was the cause.

Yes, prejudice. Not the kind that holds one group back because of who they are; but the kind that holds all of us back because of what we aren't. Too often we aren't interested in the old homes and storefronts that still can be found in our communities. Sometimes the reason is that in our age of suburban sprawl we are quick to flee densely populated urban centers and their ills in favor of safer, greener, more rural pastures. More often, though, the reason that we are so quick and willing to tear down old structures is profit.

Like people who sell their homes when someone of a different race or ethnicity moves onto their block, appreciation and respect for old buildings are our fine neighbors until money appears on the scene. This is why nobody thinks twice when a home like Cockeysville's Willowbrook, an 1850 farmhouse once owned by descendants of one of Baltimore County's earliest settlers, stands to be bulldozed. It is why the Samuel Owings home, 18th-century birthplace of Owings Mills and an architectural gem, was torn down last year with nary a shout or murmur in protest. Both landmarks occupied prime real estate ground.

But the bulldozers of prejudice take on many forms. Some of these are less tangible in form but no less destructive. And they are not limited to Baltimore County.

Downtown, the Baltimore City Life Museums were on the verge of closing until Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke begrudgingly offered $1 million over the next two years. The offer has a catch -- to get the city money, the musuem must raise an equal amount from private and business donors. It will be a daunting task for the BCLM to find enough donors to raise $500,000 this year and next.

The repository for the city's history and culture since 1932, BCLM has a $2.5 million debt. The financial crisis, caused by low attendance, has forced the museum to lay off staffers, drastically reduce operating hours and to close some exhibits.

For months, the nine site museum has been pleading with the city to give it nearly $1.6 million to stay afloat.

Schmoke's reluctance to ensure the BCLM's survival amounts to a double standard; if the Baltimore Museum of Art or the Science Center, say, were in similar financial dire straits, it is doubtful that either institution would be allowed to founder. History museums will be permitted to do so because they never have been large revenue raisers for the city, and history's tangible value is hard to quantify.

If the museum closes, the people who suffer worst would be Baltimoreans. No other institution in Baltimore better interprets our unique brand of history. Perhaps more important, no other institution reveals how our true past, not the romanticized one, holds clues about our present and future.

BCLM's renowned living history dramas and exhibits explore how cultural collisions throughout Baltimore's evolution, between such groups as whites and blacks and Roman Catholics and Protestants, helped forge this city's identity as a place where real, often volatile, tensions coexisted. Nowhere else in this city can we learn how so many peoples with so many differences learned to create a shared identity that unites us today.

At a time when we are Balkanizing ourselves racially, such messages from history are a panacea. By opening our minds to history, they show us that lessons from the past often are keys to our future; that the only way for Baltimoreans to forge ahead is at some point to put aside our differences and move forward as one people with a shared vision.

It is to be hoped that the passage of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's "Smart Growth" bills will also help us to find a shared vision. The bills, among other things, would seek to revitalize our existing and older communities while conserving our farms and forests. If Smart Growth had been enacted last year, perhaps symbols of our shared past and future, like the Samuel Owings home, would still exist.

Now, in Baltimore's bicentennial year, is the time to rethink the role of history in our lives. Unless we make this change about history in our mind set soon -- unless we raise our consciousness about our past -- we will permanently raze our hope for the future.

Andrew Reiner is a free-lance writer who lives in Baltimore.

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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