Neighborhoods Watch

In his latest book, Gil Sandler continues to cast a loving eye on the city and share those views through his writing

September 06, 2000|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Gil Sandler is a city guy who is apt to gab about the old neighborhood when you bump into him on one of his favorite downtown street corners.

He's something of an authority on neighborhood life in Baltimore and one of its most vociferous proponents. He gets uneasy on his rare ventures into that vast, yawning suburbia across the city line.

"They got cows out there," he says, in his best Dead End Kid style.

He loves to tell stories about life in the city. He wrote a book called "The Neighborhood: the Story of Baltimore's Little Italy." And for more than 25 years he has explored and extolled city life in features for The Evening Sun and, most recently, the Jewish Times.

Now a selection of pieces from the Jewish Times, seasoned with a sheaf of new ones, have been collected in a book, "Jewish Baltimore: A Family Album," to be published this month by the Johns Hopkins University Press in association with the Jewish Museum of Maryland, which supplied most of the evocative photographs.

The book opens, after a prologue, with Sandler's reflections on "The Old Neighborhood," the old Jewish neighborhoods of South and East Baltimore, along with a fond appreciation of the city's public baths.

Sandler has lived a lot of the history he recounts. His own old neighborhood was Lower Park Heights. He was born there in a second-floor bedroom at 3608 Cottage Ave.

"They call it Southern Park Heights today," he says, "but it was always Lower to me. I never knew where `Upper' began. I was always suspicious of where people drew that line, Upper Park Heights. I lived on Lower Park Heights."

He says it with a ring of pride in his voice.

"I drove by there recently," he says. "The house is there. I can't tell you what's wrong with the picture. The configurations are different. And it may be a matter of scale, size. You know, the street's so narrow now."

He's like a man looking backward through the wrong end of a telescope. Everything seems smaller and older and more distant.

"I can't figure it out. I'm standing there, and this is it. But it's not it. But it tugs at the heart to think that I was born on those streets.

"That's where I spent my summers, in the streets. When I went back, I saw the wires overhead and I was reminded that we used to play wire ball. We made up games, as children do. Hit the wire with the ball. It wasn't easy, little guys, 40 feet up, straight up.

"I did it.


The strumming wire echoes down the years.

"I did it.

"I thought to myself, `I wonder if I had a tennis ball in my hand, if I could hit that wire.' "

He didn't go into the house.

"No," he sighs. "I can't do that. I can't do that.

"It's hard enough to stand outside. If you know every brick of that house, every brick in the sidewalk, it's something to look back at the house you lived in from the day you were born. If you allow time out for the Navy and college, I didn't leave until I was 28 years old. I had a room in that house waiting for me whenever I came home.

"And it tugs hard enough on an old man, and you want me to go inside? Come on, that's cruel and unusual punishment. I know those rooms so well."

Sandler is 77, but he's quite a vital "old" man. He has the natty dash of a public relations man who ran his own firm nearly 30 years. But he also habitually wears a crumbled rain hat. He looks a bit like Bert Lahr, about midway between "The Wizard of Oz" and "Waiting for Godot."

He still comes downtown every day to his job as communications director and resident sage for the Abell Foundation. He invariably rides the light rail from Mount Washington where he lives, just as he caught the No. 5 streetcar some 70 years ago to come downtown to help his father, Joseph Sandler, an optometrist with a shop at 105 N. Eutaw St.

"A parking lot is there today," he says.

His father had been a pharmacist, with a drugstore at Baltimore and Ann streets in East Baltimore.

"Interesting story there," Sandler says. "My father, as the neighborhood pharmacist, was the neighborhood physician. During the flu epidemic of 1918, it was his job to go house to house as the physician and administer what aid he could. What aid he could! He put camphor around their necks, he told me.

"Children died through the night. And when he came home at 4 or 5 in the morning, so the family oral history goes, his own daughter was dead. Her name was Miriam, a sister I never knew.

"He couldn't face East Baltimore or the pharmacy anymore. The next year they moved to Cottage Avenue. That's when he studied optometry, which was quite a different profession than it is today. It was not merchandising frames. They were like ophthalmologists."

But his mother, Minnie Ziev, and his father met at the drugstore. They hadn't known each other, but both had emigrated from Lithuania as children with their families.


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