Learning about the city on weekly guided tours

Motoring: The best thing about those Sunday drives was often the stops one made.

June 05, 1999|By Jacques Kelly

WHEN PEOPLE ASK me how I got interested in Baltimore, I respond with two words: "Sunday drives." It's a tradition I continue today. Baltimore and its environs are ever-changing.

The city was never a mystery to me. My parents conducted weekly geography lessons from the front seats of a succession of Dodges and Ramblers. Each talked and chatted as we roamed the streets of Baltimore, a city that in the 1950s was still stained with years of coal soot. Formstone enjoyed a status not unlike a large, pressure-treated lumber deck does today. The city was indeed gritty, full of long traffic lights and overhanging signs. Places like South Broadway were not fancy. Baltimore's charms were not acclaimed, but we loved the old place as locals do.

The curbside sights of 1950s Baltimore might not mean much to people who passed them every day, but to an 8-year-old, these post-church excursions were real eye-openers.

My mother was especially good at identifying the locales of major fires and crime scenes. An ex-social worker, she also pointed out the homes where foster children she had placed lived. She also cited the homes of old friends from school and usually had something to say about the quality of the food served in them.

On one occasion we drove and drove until we found the street where a leaking gas line had blown up, taking with it a stretch of porch-front rowhouses. On another Sunday my father got a tip there had a been a train wreck at Caton and Frederick. Off we sped to gawk at the tilted dark maroon passenger cars of this Pennsylvania Railroad mess.

As we crisscrossed Baltimore, my brother, sisters and I were often shown the Morgue, the Penitentiary, City Jail, the Hillen Station and the old Park Terminal streetcar barn, where my mother said she once searched in vain for a new umbrella she had left behind on the No. 11 car.

We were educated in painted screens, marble steps, areaways, a-rabbers, Belgian blocks, high-pressure manholes, the Old Bay Line, Green Mount Cemetery, grain elevators, the Ma&Pa, the American Brewery, the Howard Street Tunnel, the Belvedere Avenue Bridge and the Peale Museum.

Not all the drives were within the city. A favorite was along the Falls Road. We were fascinated by the ruins of an old motel, what looked like a set of 1930s cabins set into the sides of the hills. It was built of rust-colored Falls Road Stone, a building material that also goes by the name of Butler Stone. We called it Gray's Rocky Mountain Lodge, but that might not be its real name.

The cooks in my family (my stay-at-home grandmother and her sister) considered Sunday afternoons their time off, especially after the mammoth breakfasts they served in the morning. So any contributions to what went on the table at 5 p.m., were gratefully accepted -- if, along the way, we passed something special.

Sometimes the drives were cut a little bit short if there was something pressing, like a televised Colts game, an event that seemed to stop all of Baltimore. But even short trips came with lessons. By the time the B & O Mount Royal Station's clock tower came into view, I could guess my father's destination. Soon we were riding up Park Avenue and stopping just below North.

The city's fanciest caterer-confectioner was Fiske's, a genteel survivor of an ancient age. Located in a rowhouse shop front, the place had enameled white showcases and seemed like a bakery shop that was never too busy. Mr. Fiske always waited on us and never failed to give away a little cake cut in the shape of a diamond or crescent. My father generally took home a whole cake and a couple quarts of ice cream.

One Sunday, my father scored big points with everybody when he arrived home with a big bag of delicatessen delights from Lombard Street in East Baltimore.

A couple a times a year he conducted a tour of this neighborhood, showing off the Shot Tower and the Lloyd Street Synagogue along the way. I remember the live chickens in their crates more than any experience I ever had at the Baltimore Zoo, except for a trip to the Elephant House.

I was flabbergasted by the sight of cream cheese stored in long wooden boxes, then cut to the weight you requested. The light green pickles in the barrels were another eye-opener, but it was the long-gone and much lamented Stone's Bakery that became a must-stop destination.

Baltimoreans of that era were reverential about a loaf of Stone's rye. It was consumed with the same status as Berger's cookies, Wight's rye whiskey, the chicken chow mein served in Hutzler's basement downtown and anything from Hopper McGaw's.

Pub Date: 6/05/99

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