The House We Live In

The faces are different along the streets, the names are new, the cultures varied, but, as Michael Olesker observes, the lifeblood of Baltimore flows, as it always has, from its ethnic neighborhoods.

October 24, 2001

Editor's note: Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, a new book by Sun columnist Michael Olesker, is the story of assimilation in a city of long-held racial and ethnic pockets. It is the story of the American mosaic as lived in Baltimore, and the struggle of those who have felt themselves with a familiar conflict: wanting the full, mainstream America, but also wanting to hold on to the beliefs, the traditions and the family histories that make each of us unique.

Olesker has been a newspaper reporter and columnist for 35 years, the past 23 with The Sun. Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore ($22.50, 352 pages) is published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. What follows is an excerpt from the book.

One drizzly Saturday morning in the spring of 2000, I dropped in for services at the B'Nai Israel Congregation, 27 Lloyd Street, only a few footsteps away from the strip of Lombard Street known for many years as Corned Beef Row and, to some souls in a less sensitive time, as Jewtown.

East Baltimore's Lombard Street had once been the closest thing I imagined to New York's Lower East Side, writ small. Nearly 10,000 Jews once crowded the area and attended any of 35 neighborhood synagogues. Behind every delicatessen counter was a slicer of corned beef who was an amateur philosopher on the side. Street peddlers of second-hand clothing quoted Talmud to the evening attendant of the public baths, who responded in Hebrew or Yiddish with wisdom of his own. They had no money, but they imagined themselves aristocrats of the intellect.

Now, from the second-floor sanctuary of the synagogue, I could see the tattered remains of that hectic culture. There were empty little buildings and vacant lots interspersed with a couple of Asian grocery stores and Jewish delicatessens whose hearts beat mostly from memory. A public housing high-rise, newly cleaned-out, awaited municipal dynamiting. The block was an old man's smile with most of its teeth gone.

Someone whose life had spanned the century might have thought: After so much tumult, the city has simply exhausted itself. A few miles south of Lombard Street, in the years surrounding the turn of the previous century, thousands of immigrants arrived at Locust Point and stumbled out of steerage onto American land.

They found piers where Irish, German and black men, stripped to the waist and covered in sweat and dust, worked as coal trimmers. They found Italians working construction on nearby railroad lines. They found a waterfront with smoking factories, and a harbor filled with steamships. They rented rooms or moved in with friends or relatives in stifling little Federal Hill rowhouses from which they could walk to the inner harbor markets and warehouses and the bustling port.

They found ferries to take them across the harbor to Fells Point, where they found apartments poorly lighted, barely ventilated, with no water or toilets, where three or four families shared space designed for one. They looked for work in the city's garment industry, or its canneries or packing houses. Some found work in shipbuilding or steel making. If they were skilled workers who happened to be white males, they could make as much as $3 a day.

To Federal Hill's west was Sharp-Leadenhall, where African-Americans had lived since the 18th century. Beyond that was old West Baltimore, where blacks moved into alley houses - literally, ramshackle little dwellings in grubby alleys - and the remains of rowhouses whose charms had faded years earlier.

Such shabbiness among the colored was considered commonplace. White employers froze them out of jobs paying decent money. Housing codes boxed them in. Jim Crow laws crippled them politically. When they tried to find a collective voice, they found only a few: their churches; a union of brick makers, wagoners, grain trimmers and stevedores known as the Knights of Labor; and a newspaper called the Afro-American.

The city drew thousands of immigrants from southern Italy, who found work digging railroad tunnels and sewers, and built schools and bridges and emptied cargo from ships. They found low-cost housing near the harbor. So many clustered in one clump of about 12 square blocks that the Archdiocese of Baltimore built the first Italian parish in the city - St. Leo's - and the neighborhood became known as Little Italy and produced a political dynasty named D'Alesandro.

East of Little Italy were Canton and Highlandtown, which would embrace Greeks named Venetoulis and Poles named Mikulski. Each group settled in distinct ethnic enclaves and created its own institutions. They grew out of a sense of pride and self-protection. Each produced astute politicians who spoke the language of the old country and organized block by block, precinct by precinct, ward by ward.

And there was Lombard Street, around which clustered the Jews, and Italians from the fringes of Little Italy.

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