City neighborhoods of 1950s were a delight to a child

Nostalgia: Levinson's new film recalls memories of Liberty Heights, the Block.

November 20, 1999|By Jacques Kelly

This weekend's arrival "Liberty Heights," the new Barry Levinson film, reminds me of my own connection with that name. As a child of 1950s Baltimore, I too was dazzled by the array of totally different neighborhoods and peoples that all came under the shared address of Baltimore.

I first got to know the name Liberty Heights from the telephone exchange, specifically that of Pimlico race track, L-I-B-four-two hundred, as my mother dialed it, always phonetically. My father's desk -- then as today -- was there.

To a child at 29th and Guilford in North Baltimore, Liberty Heights Avenue was a distant, often mysterious address, reached via a series of bridges over the Jones Falls Valley. My father was always fascinated at how fast the No. 32 streetcars traveled on Liberty Heights. What caught my attention was the Mountain Speedway roller coaster peeping through trees at the Liberty Heights side of Carlin's Park.

Baltimoreans tend to enlarge mentally the distances -- and differences -- between our neighborhoods. We also act as if it is a tremendous burden to get from one place to another. I have hailed cabs at Johns Hopkins Hospital, given a Dundalk address such as Wise Avenue, received a totally blank stare from the driver and then been questioned, "Where is it?" North Point Road is another puzzler to the many Baltimoreans whose geographic skills crumble not far from their front door.

Last fall, when Levinson's crew was working on a mock-up of The Block on Redwood Street between South and Calvert, I parked myself on the set for hours. It was a treat to re-visit this Hollywood version of East Baltimore Street.

Downtown Baltimore in the 1950s was a fairly dark and smoke-stained place, but the lights always burned brightly on The Block.

My father made the weekly trip to Baltimore Street's old Western Union office near St. Paul Street on Sunday evenings. As many of us who could fit in the car accompanied him because the trip always included a stop at the old Horn & Horn restaurant.

Yet this section of Baltimore existed in a separate world from Towson or Walbrook. The people you'd see circulating around the neon lights of Baltimore Street, its nightclubs and strip joints were a separate breed from the rest of the Baltimore world -- a world that changed in Little Italy, changed again at the Dallas Street projects, changed again at Broadway and one more time at Highlandtown.

It took a knowing eye to savor the subtle differences of 1950s Baltimore neighborhoods. The white steps seemed cleaner in Highlandtown than anywhere else. Union Square always appeared shadowy and sad, lacking confidence. The Federal Hill streets that shine so with fresh paint and $200,000 home renovations today were anything but when the South Baltimore homes were stuffed and overcrowded with the remains of 1940s war-working families. Pennsylvania Avenue possessed a joy and swagger erased by the ravages of urban renewal.

One of the comforts of living here is the ability to hole up in these micro addresses, to adopt their ways and live a placid life. But if you do this, you'll shortchange yourself. One of Baltimore's great charms is that there is always a bigger picture just around the corner.

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