In past and present, Ashburton is special

Reunion: Former and current residents, through decades of ethnic change, will meet tomorrow.

October 12, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

For 60 years, Miriam Konigsberg has watched her Ashburton neighbors come and go. She saw the waves of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants leaving when Jewish families began to move in, and another exodus when blacks began to buy homes.

This weekend, past and present residents of the tree-lined Northwest Baltimore neighborhood plan to gather across racial and religious lines for a reunion.

At a recent block party, Konigsberg, a 92-year-old Jewish woman, spoke to her neighbors of what she had seen since 1941:

"When we moved in, Ashburton was all Christian, and it didn't take long for them to run away from `the Jews.' When African-Americans came to the neighborhood, I again witnessed a flight. I stayed and couldn't imagine living anywhere else."

Konigsberg is about the only white woman living in her affluent enclave, where the Jewish mezusa symbol can still be found on many doors. She was one of a handful who didn't fear the neighborhood was going downhill when the Saturday Evening Post published a 1959 article, "When A Negro Moves Next Door," focusing on Ashburton.

Now, living in the 166-acre community can be conjured up quickly in words, names and images by those on both sides. Carlin's Amusement Park, along with the "egg man" and the "rag man," are like shells on a mental beach for Konigsberg and others who lived there in the 1940s.

Ashburton was a dreamland for former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who mused about Sequoia Avenue, where he has lived for 18 years: "Ever since I was a little kid, I dreamed of living there. When I was in high school, every Friday I used to drive home out of the way so I could drive through Ashburton. The trees formed a beautiful canopy on Sequoia."

Schmoke said he is trying to rework his schedule to attend tomorrow's reunion, which will start at noon at Mount Zion United Methodist Church on Liberty Heights Avenue. "That spirit of community over decades is worth celebrating," he said.

For Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, 3rd District Democrat, who hopes to attend, Ashburton evokes memories of the 1940s and 1950s, when it was predominantly Jewish. Cardin grew up on Sequoia, where, he said, "Everybody knew everybody, it was so closely knit." In kindergarten, he met a girl named Myrna, to whom he is married.

Back then, stickball, bar mitzvahs, jitterbugging, root beer floats and Hebrew school helped define coming of age for a generation.

Charles Osgood, 68, anchor of CBS News' Sunday Morning spent the 1940s going to Roman Catholic school in Ashburton. "It was a wonderful sort of innocent time," Osgood said. "Pearl Harbor came, with blackouts, and the streets were lit by gas ... we always had a fine old time. From 1941, you didn't worry about who was Jewish."

Today, Census 2000 figures show that Ashburton is 98 percent black. Interviews with longtime residents reveal a deep sense of pride in a neighborhood filled with doctors, lawyers, Postal Service career employees and educators. Many families that moved in - in a wave mainly from 1958 to 1961 - are still there.

Carrie O. Staten, a retired principal who moved into a tall white house in the 3200 block of Dorchester Road in 1965, said knowing "just about all" of one's neighbors still holds true in Ashburton.

One reason, she said, had to do with school segregation: "We had no choice - we went to either Dunbar or Douglass [city high schools]." Her dream for upwardly mobile housing was to live in a well-kept neighborhood, she said.

Shawn Z. Tarrant, 36. president of the Ashburton Area Association, said the political and social leadership is carefully cultivated.

"As far as community leadership is concerned, I am mentored by a lot of people," he said. Two residents, the Rev. Vernon Dobson and Charles G. Tildon, political activist and retired Community College of Baltimore president, have encouraged him, Tarrant said.

For all the goodwill, the polarization and segregation of the 1950s lingers in the life of cardiologist Elijah Saunders, 73, who lived in Ashburton with his uncle, Bishop Monroe Saunders Sr., while he was a college chemistry major. His job at a family-owned pharmacy in Ashburton was restricted to deliveries.

"Blacks couldn't work behind the counter, and the pay was different," said Saunders, a University of Maryland School of Medicine professor. Nor were his premed studies taken seriously.

The idea for a reunion came about when two boyhood neighbors, Arnie Honkofsky and Barry Handwerger, met by chance.

They approached Tarrant, and the three enlisted Larry Stappler, a self-described "swain of the neighborhood," to organize a moonlight harbor cruise, which is among tomorrow's activities.

Handwerger, 58, a professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, said his family moved to Baltimore County in 1961. At first, he said, "it [Ashburton] was by covenant pure WASP."

When he and Honkofsky, 57, went back to the duplex where they lived on Rosedale Road, it was the first time they had seen the neighborhood in 40 years. To their amazement, they were recognized by Carrie Doram, who had lived there since they left.

"She embraced us two strangers," Handwerger said. "Forty years melted away when they made us part of the neighborhood when we came back."

Jean Packard of the Sun library contributed to this article.

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