Baltimore Glimpses: We're high-tech, hon

November 18, 1997|By Gilbert Sandler

SOME WEEKS back, discoursing on whether a seemingly tired Cal Ripken should bench himself and end his consecutive game streak, the New York Times noted, ''[Ripken's] record is so extraordinary, his approach so single-minded, and his work ethic so appealing for this blue-collar city that the ultimate decision belongs to Ripken.''

Out of the blue

Blue-collar city? That Times writer obviously doesn't know Baltimore. The blue in this city's collar has been fading for years. But this fact may have even escaped the attention of some locals.

National Beer, National Beer, You'll like the taste of National Beer. . .

Those were the days, right? The image: Beer-guzzling audiences cheered wrestling (Jimmy Londos, Gorgeous George) and boxing (Pete Galiano, Harry Jeffra, the Finazzo brothers) at Carlin's Amusement Park in Park Heights and at the Coliseum on Monroe Street, creating and reinforcing the blue-collar aura. (Boxing, by the way, was so popular here in the late '40s that we even had a high school boxing league!) As many as 10,000 flocked to stock-car racing at Dorsey Speedway in Anne Arundel County in a single night. Many of those spectators worked at Glenn L. Martin in Middle River, Bethlehem Steel and General Motors. In 1955, Bethlehem Steel was known as the largest ship-repair facility on the East Coast. When the General Motors plant here turned out its 7,000,000th car in 1975, it was one of the largest employers of blue-collar types in the area, with 6,000 people on the payroll.

Other blue-collar employers of note were the city's large meat-packing plants -- Schulderberg-Kurdle, Corkran-Hill, Goetze's, flourishing in East Baltimore and in the stockyards in the southwest; the breweries -- Gottlieb-Baurenschmidt-Straus, Brehm's, Wiesner's, Free State, Gunther's; and the giant maker of tools, which made so much blue-collaring possible -- Black & Decker Corp. Which is a Baltimore story by itself.

The modern Black & Decker began to take shape in Baltimore's shipyards during World War II. Word was out in the yards that the workers were taking home Black & Decker industrial power tools to use for home repairs. Alonzo Decker Jr., then in his mid-30s and vice president of manufacturing for Black & Decker, was intrigued by the apparent business opportunity. If there was consumer demand for industrial power tools, Mr. Decker resolved that his company would be the first to market them. And that is what Black & Decker did, initially through hardware stores.

The idea ignited America's do-it-yourself market, pushing Black & Decker into the ranks of America's best-known corporations. Today, you can buy Black & Decker power tools -- born in the shipyards of good ol' Baltimore -- all over the world. But they don't make tools in Baltimore any more -- those blue-collar jobs (1,800 in 1945) are gone.

Shipyard strike

Forty years ago, there were so many blue-collar workers here that a strike by any particular group caused great concern. Six thousand shipyard workers struck for 147 days in 1961.

But there is more to the Baltimore blue-collar story than meets the eye -- that celebrated work force was less ''Baltimore'' than you might think. What happened was that in wartime days, Baltimore's blue-collar industries were forced by demand to expand dramatically.

Bethlehem-Fairfield was hiring 2,300 workers a week to build Liberty ships for duty in the North Atlantic. That was the story for the world; for Baltimore, the story was not where the ships were going but where the workers were coming from.

That geography was obvious from the graffiti scrawled on tool sheds all over the yards: Summerfield, W. Va.; Galax, Va; Covington, Ky.; Crossville, Tenn. During World War II, people came pouring out of Appalachia and the South to join Baltimore's work force. They brought their skills, lifestyles and language and music. When the war ended, most of them stayed here, changing the city.

Today, the number of ''blue collars'' who work in the shipbuilding and aircraft plants and meat-packing plants and the breweries have dwindled sharply. Probably nowhere is that more obvious than Canton. It's becoming gentrified faster than you can say, ''The old American Can factory is being converted to upscale boutiques and other businesses.''

But the myth of Baltimore as a blue-collar town persists, even if the numbers tell a different story.

In 1987, there were 205,000 jobs that could be called traditional ,, blue-collar jobs -- manufacturing and construction jobs -- in the Baltimore area. Last year, that figure was 161,000.

In 1949, blue-collar manufacturing jobs accounted for 34 percent of the work force; but in 1996, the percentage was down to 8 percent. At the General Motors plant here alone, the work force has dropped from 6,100 in the 1950s to 1,600 today.

Joe Six Pack

The implications of this phenomenon should be, if they are not already, far reaching. While the Joe Six Pack image is one to be proud of, it's not the Baltimore story today.

Industry, and the jobs that industry (home grown or imported) creates, will not flourish here because of the antique notion -- however charming -- that we are a city of working-class stiffs. What attracts industry today is a sense that we're a progressive city.

Anyone moving to town is welcome to go find the native Baltimorean dressed in work clothes, carrying a lunch box and on his way to the neighborhood tavern after work, where he'll hear a waitress call him ''Hon.'' But they'd better do it soon; time is running out. Reality is overtaking the myth.

Gilbert Sandler writes from, and about, changing Baltimore.

Pub Date: 11/18/97

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