Keeping in step with neighborhood tradition

September 08, 2001|By Rob Kasper

I SCRUBBED my marble steps last weekend. It was the first time I had done the task the right way, with a pumice stone and a pumice-based powder, in 20-plus years of home ownership. It might be another 20 before I try it again.

It is a lot of work. When I started early in the afternoon, the Orioles were in the first inning of a game against the Seattle Mariners. By time I finished the four steps, both the Orioles and I were whipped.

At least when the grit had settled, I had something to show for my efforts: a gleaming marble step or two. The top step, once a dingy gray, now has a pinkish glow. The bottom step, however, still has a dark spot on it, from wax that had spilled from a jack-o'-lantern placed there many Halloweens ago.

I used the Baltimore Marble Step Cleaning Kit, which I bought for $10 at Hometown Girl, a shop in Hampden. The kit, which consists of a sack of pumice-based powder, a small pumice stone and a brochure, was put together by the Neighborhood Design Center, a nonprofit organization working to improve city neighborhoods. (The kit, I was advised, does not work on cleaning the polished marble found inside the home.)

Following the brochure's instructions, I wet the steps with a cotton rag, then sprinkled a thin layer of the rubbing powder on a step and scrubbed, in a circular motion, with the pumice stone. I rinsed the residue every few minutes with a bucket of warm water. Then I did the procedure over and over and over again.

Later, when I compared my technique with that of Lynne Franklin, one of the premier step washers of East Baltimore, I detected a slight difference.

Franklin, a lifelong resident of Highlandtown who still scrubs her front steps once a week, told me she also employs a brush, with wet bristles, to scrub the powder into the dirty step. Then she follows up with a pumice stone and rinses off the residue.

But the main ingredient in the undertaking, Franklin assured me, is elbow grease.

"You keep at it," she said. She added that if I would clean my steps once a week, instead of once every two decades, the task would be considerably easier.

I called Franklin at the suggestion of David Collins, who works for the Neighborhood Design Center and is interested in reviving the Baltimore tradition of step washing.

That tradition enjoyed a burst of national notice recently when Franklin was featured in a National Public Radio story about Baltimore's marble steps. The piece, which aired in July, inspired sales of the step-cleaning kit at the Hampden shop, and for a few weeks this summer, it was sold out. Supplies have been replenished, meaning all that is needed now to return the city's steps to their bygone luster is a corps of willing workers.

Franklin told me that in the late 1950s and early 1960s when she was growing up in East Baltimore, she and other girls toiled every Saturday morning, sometimes reluctantly, on the neighborhood's marble steps.

"We would be out there with scrub buckets. I would scrub my parents' steps, then the steps of all my aunts who lived on our block, the 900 block of N. Collington, and then the steps of any elderly person who lived on that block."

Franklin said she was not paid for step washing. Rather, she said, it was an expected part of life, a duty performed for her family and for fellow members of her Czech community. "If a girl did a sloppy job on some steps," Franklin added, "her mother would hear about it."

My neighbor, David Maulsby, told me that in the West Baltimore community of Bolton Hill, the step-washing tradition was different.

Maulsby, who is 60 years old and lives in his boyhood home in the 1400 block of Park Ave., said when he grew up, the neighborhood's marble steps were cared for by a handful of paid male step washers.

Once a family formed a relationship with a step washer, the steps were the man's responsibility. The custom was that steps were washed once or twice a week and payment, something in the vicinity of $2 a week, was rendered on Fridays, he said. A step washer's domain sometimes took in all of the houses on the block, Maulsby recalled, adding that when a house was sold, the new owner was expected to continue using the services of the man who had cared for the steps.

Families became attached to their step washer, and vice versa, Maulsby said. For instance, Maulsby said that when his mother died in 1968, their longtime step washer paid tribute to her by making sure the steps of the family home were sparkling on the day of her funeral.

In addition to sharing his memories of neighborhood history, Maulsby also let me borrow his family's pumice stone. Unlike the small stone that came with the step-cleaning kit, this one was large, about the size of a brick.

It made scrubbing my steps easier, but it was still a chore.

Yesterday, as I looked at the wax spot on my front steps, I thought of what Franklin, the Queen of East Baltimore marble had told me: "If your steps are sparkling," she said, "you feel secure, clean and welcome."

By that high standard, I still have some scrubbing to do.

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