In thriving Locust Point, a link to the Old World

March 19, 2002|By Michael Olesker

IN MY HAND is a photograph sent by Ron Zimmerman Sr. He is the real estate man trying to hold onto Baltimore's yesterdays. In the photograph are people gathered at a gate at the end of a Locust Point pier around the turn of the last century. On mornings like this, Zimmerman can still hear their voices calling across the years.

Since 1995, he's been trying to put together a lasting link to those who immigrated here. Nearly a million of them arrived in Baltimore in the years around 1900, in Locust Point and in Fells Point, in numbers greater than any port of entry in America except New York's Ellis Island. They crossed the Atlantic on voyages that seemed to last forever, and most of them arrived down near the end of Fort Avenue, and they stood there like the people in the photograph, wondering what awaited them.

"And then they helped make Baltimore into a great city," Zimmerman was saying the other day. "And we should remember that."

In the springtime of his 74th year, Zimmerman gazes through the window of his Light Street real estate office. On Fort Avenue a few blocks away, the neighborhood is jumping. Real estate prices blossom everywhere. The area's old rowhouses, dating to the mid-1800s, are getting rehabbed. The old immigrants used to rent them for a few dollars a week, but now they're selling for six figures.

And now there are entire blocks of new homes, the first to be built in Locust Point in half a century, selling even higher. Restaurants and bars are filled, and vacant old factory space is being transformed into high-tech businesses with new energy.

But Zimmerman, who grew up in Southwest Baltimore's Pigtown and has run Ron Zimmerman Realtors in Federal Hill for a few decades, looks at the photograph of these people just off the boat, and thinks that their long-ago world matters, too.

"I talk to young people today," he was saying, "and all they talk about is millionaire, millionaire. That's nice, they want to make money. But there's more to life than that. There's family, there's heritage, there's memory. We have to remember."

He is getting closer to institutionalizing Baltimore's memory. Over the past seven years, he's pitched his idea for a Baltimore Immigration Museum to politicians, architects, real estate developers, foundation chiefs. The project seems to be moving.

"It's getting more real all the time," says Parker Pennington of the Xibitz design company, which is helping Zimmerman conceptualize and design some of the plans. "We've got the right people in place, and a lot of enthusiasm. The prospects are really good."

In fact, there are a half-dozen related projects on the table, some of which are set to go as early as this summer. Neighborhood walking tours, led by local historian Scott Sheads, will begin in July. An orientation center and waterfront plaza will open at Tide Point, adjacent to the original B&O Railroad Piers where some of the newly arrived took off for the hinterlands. And there are plans for a building with multimedia displays and films, lectures, music and dancing.

"And for continuing the immigration process," Pennington says. Zimmerman has talked with local immigration officials about moving citizenship swearing-in ceremonies from the federal courthouse to the proposed Locust Point facility.

A theme runs through all of this: There is a history here of the newly arrived enriching the whole country, and that history is under-appreciated.

"Almost a million people arrived in America right down Fort Avenue and over in Fells Point," Zimmerman says, "and they created a city here. And who knows about it?"

A second phase to the project: an enclosed museum, including a Family Heritage Research Center, to tap into personal family genealogy. At the center, or through its planned Web site, visitors will be able to search for family connections. An extensive archive of passenger arrival records will be compiled in an electronic database.

"There was a time," Zimmerman said, "when there wasn't so much enthusiasm for a project like this in Locust Point. They didn't want what they perceived to be a disturbance. It's a tight-knit community. But they also know that a lot of their ancestors came through here.

"And they see the changes that have happened over the years, and they've loosened up. They have a sense of where the future's going."

They also have a notion of the past. It's down there at the old shipping piers off Fort Avenue, and the old railroad tracks near Tide Point, and the cobblestone streets of Fells Point. You can see some of it in Ron Zimmerman's photograph of the newly arrived gathered by a fence. Their journey signaled the beginning of so much of Baltimore's history, waiting to be remembered.

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