Locust Point a natural for immigration museum

May 06, 2001|By Michael Olesker

RON ZIMMERMAN is the missing link. He is 73 years old and comes out of the old cobblestone streets of Pigtown and the newly yuppified Federal Hill. He is a real estate agent who believes in more than tomorrow's trendiness. When he leaves his Light Street office and looks a few blocks south toward Fort Avenue in Locust Point, he can see all the way to yesteryear.

Everybody knows that New York's Ellis Island was the biggest port of arrival for last century's immigrants to America, but how many know that Baltimore's Locust Point was second-biggest? Zimmerman knows, and he wants to hold onto that history before it slips irretrievably away.

"Look at this," he says, hauling a carton of papers into his office at Ron Zimmerman Realtors one morning last week. He has six years' worth of correspondence in a collection of such boxes. He has architect's renderings, artist mock-ups, letters of encouragement from politicians and foundations and individuals who remember their families' journeys here and treasure the stories.

All point lovingly to the same thing: Zimmerman's idea for the Immigration Museum of Baltimore. Which, at the moment, for all its good intentions, and all the heartfelt desires, and the absolute naturalness of a museum in Locust Point as a virtual next-door neighbor to Fort McHenry, at the very location where so many first touched American soil - seems to be going nowhere.

"Look at this," Zimmerman says again. He hands over a random newspaper obituary from a few years ago: Sophie M. Young Appler, 88. He points to a single paragraph that seems to open entire doors: "Her father was 13 years old when he came through Locust Point from Germany. A man on the deck asked him if he wanted to learn how to be a baker in exchange for room and board, and that's how he learned his trade."

We are an entire metropolitan area sprung from such people.

"Look at this," Zimmerman says again. He hands over another newspaper obit: Harry Shofer, 96, the man who started Shofer's Furniture on South Charles Street. Zimmerman points to a paragraph in the Shofer obit: "He often said, `I walked off the boat in Locust Point and went right over to South Baltimore.' He started his business by renting, selling and fixing bicycles, adding radios and appliances, and then furniture."

So that's how it started!

A whole history is waiting to be brought to life - about the arrival of many thousands of people here in the last century, stumbling out of steerage onto dry American land where they found men laboring on piers whose roots were in Africa and Ireland and Germany, working now as coal trimmers. They found Italians working on nearby railroad lines and Jews in the city's garment industry and Poles in packing houses. They found smoking factories and steamships, and they rented rooms in stifling little rowhouses and found work in shipbuilding and steel making and began to strut their stuff in an America reinventing itself every day.

That's the story that Zimmerman wants to hold onto: everyone's, the story of a Baltimore metro area that grew enormously out of the lives of all those who first touched shore at Locust Point's shipping piers and moved outward from there.

"Everybody," he says, "falls in love with the idea."

Not only individuals, but the Living Classrooms Foundation, and the Constellation folks, and the Maritime Museum and the Jewish Museum and the German Society and the B&O Railroad Museum. They all want to contribute not just money but artifacts.

He's got testimonials by the boxful, and politicians around the state eager to designate significant money. He's also got encouragement from Mayor Martin O'Malley, a man emotionally tugged by his own family's journey from Ireland to America. In March, the mayor wrote to Zimmerman:

"As you may know, I am quite proud and interested in my ancestry and heritage. I look forward to visiting the Immigration Museum once it becomes reality, and I applaud your efforts."

The mayor notes, however, "a number of obstacles" Zimmerman has faced over the last six years - and puts him in touch with the right folks at the Baltimore Development Corporation.

That was two months ago. Zimmerman will add the two months to the previous six years' worth of meetings, of false starts, of discussions that looked promising and then seemed to evaporate with various politicians, bureaucrats, and developers who have reputations as civic-minded people but can't seem to move off a dime.

"My heart is in this," Zimmerman says. "It's the kind of thing that brings all people of the area together."

He reaches into a big cardboard box and pulls out architect's drawings and museum prototypes: this room at the museum to tell the story of the voyages, that one to show patterns of city settlement, homeland backgrounds, assimilation patterns, and on and on, with old photos and written records mixing with modern computers for further exploration.

"I've got letters from people," Zimmerman says, reaching into the cardboard boxes again, "where people are almost crying. Their parents came through here. They want them to be remembered, they want their names kept alive. It's what we all want."

He can see it all: waves of the newly arrived in the early days of the last century, stumbling off their oceangoing vessels; and waves of their descendants arriving in the new century, arriving by water taxi or tugboat, or by car or tourist bus - reveling in the new Baltimore, but tenderly embracing the old.

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