Baltimore glimpses: A city always in renewal

September 16, 1997|By Gilbert Sandler

STORIES TELL YOU what we used to be and how we are becoming something else. Here are some of those stories.

Baltimore used to be a city famous for a large ''smokestack'' work force. It was common, into the third generation, for men in the city's Highlandtown-Canton neighborhoods to say, ''I work at the Point.'' That meant Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant.

At its peak, during World War II, ''the Point'' employed more than 20,000. During those years, even more worked at the Glenn L. Martin aircraft-building plant, which was then the state's largest employer. Almost everybody knew somebody ''working at Martin.'' Glenn L. Martin became Martin Marietta, then Lockheed Martin.

BethSteel and Martin weren't the only blue-collar industries to dominate the city's workplace and, with changing times, lose their dominance or disappear altogether: Maryland Glass, American Can, Maryland Shipbuilding and Drydock, Western Electric, Allied Chemical, the Pennsylvania and B&O railways, O'Sullivan and Mathieson Chemical; the breweries, Gunther, Arrow, American, National; the meat packers -- Corkran Hill and Goetze's. The list is long.

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We used to be known as the world center for the manufacture of men's clothing -- suits, overcoats, shirts, pants, raincoats, underwear, hats. According to Philip Kahn in his definitive study of the industry, ''A Stitch In Time,'' in those years ''Most men in the United States wore shirts or underwear made in Baltimore.''

Until the 1960s Baltimore's ''soft-goods'' industry turned out millions of suits, overcoats and hats, and in all aspects of manufacturing, wholesaling and distribution employed hundreds of thousands. A 1947 city census of manufacturers indicated that apparel manufacture had a wholesale value of about $192 million and employed 117,000 in 340 establishments. Many argue that the leading manufacturing industry in Maryland in the 1920s was men's clothing; in numbers of workers employed, the H. Sonneborn factory was second only to Bethlehem Steel.

The industry had its beginnings as far back as the Civil War, when Sonneborn, Schoenman and Greif made uniforms for both the Union and the Confederacy. Other giants in the industry include Aetna Shirt and Marboro Shirt, Men's Hats, Inc. Schloss Brothers, Lebow Brothers.

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After World War II, Baltimore's downtown began to change in response to changes in the way goods were manufactured and distributed nationally, and to the era's obsession with suburbanizing.

Government (in a dramatic example of ''social engineering'') built the roads and the schools and the water and sewer system that encouraged people to move out of the city and into the suburbs. Downtown followed them -- it just seemed to pick up and move. The great city institutions closed or moved out.

Movies were rebuilt in the counties -- downtown's Hippodrome, Stanley, Century, Valencia all closed. The behemoth department-store emporiums -- Hutzler's Hochschild's, Stewart's, O'Neil's, Julius Gutman, Brager Eisenberg moved or closed. As for the grand hotels -- the Emerson was knocked down, the Southern was shuttered; motels ringed the beltways.

The storied restaurants -- Miller Brothers, Oyster Bay, Schellhase's -- closed their doors forever. Downtown's prestigious retailers left for the suburbs or went out of business -- Stieff Silver, Isaac Hamburger's, Schleisner's, Grand Rapids, Loehmeyer, Hopper McGaw, Lycett, Minor's, Fountain Shop, Maron's Candy.

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We used to be the wholesale center of the South. Buyers from retail stores as far away as Norfolk and Richmond, Frederick and Cumberland, Easton and Salisbury and the Carolinas would visit the wholesale houses -- Baltimore Bargain House, Marco Shoe, Askin Bros., the Jess Company. The Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 got started in the wholesale district, in the basement of John E. Hurst & Company between Hopkins Place and Liberty Street.

According to a report issued in 1938 by the Baltimore Association of Commerce, the business of wholesaling in Baltimore ''was at an all-time high.'' During that year, its data showed that 932 merchants from Baltimore, Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore purchased a total of $992,571 in goods, an average of $1,064 per buyer -- all in 1938 dollars.

They bought at wholesale, mostly from the warehouses in the area around Hanover and Redwood streets, ladies' ready-to-wear, tobacco products, neckwear, rubber goods, hats, men's suits, overcoats, pants, window shades and draperies, store fixtures, crockery, glassware, toys, floor coverings, radios, refrigerators, children's ready-to-wear, shoes and leather goods.

After the war, many businesses began to sell directly, eliminating the middleman-wholesaler from the sales function. Baltimore's wholesale district would have died on its own, but the city put the nail on its coffin, perhaps before the district's time, when it knocked the whole district down and built Charles Center over it. Thus a new downtown began to rise from the rubble of the old.

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