YMCA, Frick houses, sex, critters

Books Of The Region

January 20, 2002|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

Nice people, long ago, eyed the urban poor, amid their squalor and ignorance, and had a ready explanation: character flaws. Toward 1900, however, some of the privileged were beginning to shift the blame. Poverty, they admitted, often "resulted instead from involuntary unemployment, industrial accidents and low wages."

The quotation is from The Making of a Modern City: Philanthropy, Civic Culture and the Baltimore YMCA, by Jessica I. Elfenbein (University Press of Florida, 180 pages, $55). As attitudes changed, driblets of alms-giving, Lady Baltimore-style, were replaced by organized efforts to help the young, in particular, to hoist themselves up into the middle class. In the process, U.S. cities became more manageable, more livable.

By the 1880s, the cause was big in Baltimore. And its Young Men's Christian Association forms a fine case history, in this fresh and insightful study by Professor Elfenbein of the University of Baltimore. Founded in London in 1844, the YMCA reached Baltimore 150 years ago; Elfenbein follows it to the 1930s, and private charity's nationwide failure to cope with the Depression. The work was never easy -- starting with relations between the many churches that deemed poverty relief less urgent than bringing all to Jesus, and secular voluntarism with its often patronizing overtone. (Later on, religion was quietly dropped from the YMCA mission statement.)

The Y became a real presence, with vocational and self-help programs -- typing, bookkeeping, languages. For newsboys, railroad workers, seamen and other susceptible newcomers, here was an alternative to saloons and brothels. Headquarters was on Charles Street, then Franklin (with residential floors); at Johns Hopkins University, where social welfare work "was almost part of the curriculum," an impressive building went up. In time, the Y was staffed by professionals, able to get on with both the well-meaning wealthy and the despairing lower classes.

A wholly separate black YMCA was founded in 1885. After protracted fund-raising, its new building on Druid Hill Avenue proved shoddy and inadequate. And, "in the area of race relations, Baltimore YMCA leaders both black and white long tolerated the status quo of racial segregation." Elfenbein tells this part of the story, too, with care and effect.

Henry Clay Frick (1855-1919) provided coke for Andrew Carnegie's Pittsburgh steel mills; then, moving to New York, he was a middleman for Morgan and Rockefeller in steel and railroads. Having made millions ("off the backs of working men"), Frick splurged on four huge houses, myriad works of art, social pleasures. He was, Martha Frick Symington Sanger quietly and accurately adds, "a man of his day."

Frick's start came from Pennsylvania whiskey (Abraham Overholt was his grandfather), even as William T. Walters' did in Baltimore (Baker rye). Frick's name is still there on his Pittsburgh and Manhattan mansions, museums now. But, unlike one after another of his fellow tycoons, Frick has a descendant who is sensitive, eloquent and hard-working. Sanger, of Stevenson, is his great-granddaughter.

Her 1998 biography of Frick brought national applause; her handsome new book, The Henry Clay Frick Houses: Architecture, Interiors, Landscapes in the Golden Era (Monacelli, 296 pages, $65, oversize), helped by her ancestors' interest in documentary photography, is going to be prized far beyond the museum world.

The book stands out, in stores; its title, Sex, is in 2-inch-high letters. No clothing retards the couples conjoined in the Paolo Fiammingo painting on its dust jacket. Times Books and Henry Holt, publishers of this $32.50 book, leave it to you to discover that, for all its 516 pages, there are no other pictures.

Not in some while has there been a big book on sex, comparable to those of Kinsey, and Masters and Johnson. All the while, however, research has intensified, speculation expanded. Joann Ellison Rodgers, as the director of media relations at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, reads the many reports, interviews the scientists. One of her previous subjects, as author, was psychosurgery. Now, with "A Natural History" as subtitle, Rodgers brings us up to speed.

But sex, as subject or as object, is still complex. Smilingly, Rodgers leads her reader on -- to fumble with histones, haploids and bdelloid rotifers. She quotes Mae West but then reminds us, "It is the brain that is the principal organ of sex."

Scientists are still disputing sex's origins, why most other animals seem not to have orgasms, whether monogyny and monandry are natural. The point of it all is still reproduction but that, too, isn't simple. There are other ways of continuing a species -- bacteria, for instance, just split up. And then live on and on. But sexual reproduction necessarily leads not just to aging but to death. Not a laughing matter, sex.

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