Memories of our small town

Historian: In his latest book, Gilbert Sandler recalls the values and virtues of old-time Baltimore.

September 21, 2002|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Gilbert Sandler vividly remembers a different downtown - the sounds of streetcars, the spicy smells from McCormick & Co. and the sight of women shopping in white gloves.

But it wasn't pure nostalgia that drove the inveterate Baltimore historian to compile his latest book, Small Town Baltimore: An Album of Memories. He wanted to remind readers of the values the city once had.

"You pay a price to live in a city," he said. "The benefits are the verities. You live with your neighbors, step to step, porch to porch."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Sept. 21 editions of The Sun about Gilbert Sandler's book Small Town Baltimore: An Album of Memories misspelled the name of the maitre d' of the Chesapeake Restaurant, Isidor Friedman.
The Sun regrets the error.

The book is a collection of his favorite "Baltimore Glimpses" essays, vignettes written from memory that appeared on the Opinion Commentary page every Tuesday in the Evening Sun and later in The Sun. During the 30 years in which he wrote them, the entire scope and skyline of the city changed.

"I walked right through it," Sandler, 79, said of the transformation.

Sandler is a familiar figure in the city, with his big glasses and trademark crumpled rain hat "People have crossed the street to ask me about that hat," he said. "It never looks the same way twice."

He banters with the best of them when given the opportunity and has distinct opinions about city life.

Although he grew up on Cottage Avenue in Park Heights, "I spent all my life downtown," he said. "The word itself was electric, because everything was downtown."

Somehow, things changed since his childhood, when no one moved from the city to Baltimore County. That was considered uncivilized. "They didn't even have sidewalks out there," Sandler said.

Back then, if you went to a place like Carlin's Park in Park Circle, which featured a fun house with a disc that spun until it threw its dizzy riders off, you'd meet people from places like Highlandtown or Hampden.

Today, at Harborplace, Japanese tourists are taking photographs of buildings Sandler stood in front of to sell newspapers as a boy.

"In those days it was our town, our city. When it was a small town we all lived together. ... You learned to deal with each other's problems," he said. "We're an international center now. We became a region."

But there is still a residue of Baltimore's former life.

As Sandler writes in his introduction, "It is as if an artist has painted a new work over an old one, only to discover the old one has a way of showing through."

The Lord Baltimore, one of the few original downtown hotel buildings still in existence, now lives on as a Radisson. In a section of the book called "Overnight Stays," Sandler describes how a dozen men at a time could get their hair trimmed inside the hotel's posh barber shop - and how some politicians found the Lord Baltimore a suitable location to receive bribes.

Many other landmarks are gone, or have been made over.

Until its demise in 1939, H.L. Mencken's favorite hotel, the Rennert, attracted enough politicians to be a secondary City Hall and State House. Now there is nothing standing on the triangular site other than cars - it's a downtown parking lot.

And today, who would guess looking at the Bromo Seltzer Tower, modeled after the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy, that a rotating pill bottle once resided at the top?

Sandler still lives in the city, in the Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood. A former owner of a public relations business, he is a writer in residence at the Abell Foundation.

He previously wrote Jewish Baltimore: A Family Album, a compilation of his columns for the Baltimore Jewish Times, and The Neighborhood: The Story of Baltimore's Little Italy.

The columns have the confiding tone of sharing information with an insider.

"He tends to remember best the things he remembers fondly, and other people remember them fondly as well," said Robert J. Brugger, Sandler's editor at Johns Hopkins University Press. "He tells stories with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face."

Sandler writes from memory, which explains the occasional factual error that readers often wrote in to correct. When compiling his latest book, whose official publication date is Oct. 1, Sandler enlisted the help of librarians at the Enoch Pratt Free Library to check his dates.

The book includes photographs Sandler and Brugger culled from the Maryland Collection at the Enoch Pratt Free Library and the Marylandia and Rare Books Department at the University of Maryland Libraries. There are also pictures from the work of Baltimore photographers such as Thomas C. Scilipoti, James P. Gallagher and I. Henry Phillips Sr. of the Baltimore Afro American.

The photos and Sandler's columns recall a far different life for forgotten places such as the Chesapeake Restaurant on Charles Street. On a recent short tour of the city, Sandler stood in front of the building with its broken windows and graffiti to read aloud a passage from his book.

He described how the crowd there was as concerned about "face time" - seeing and being seen - as patrons were at the 21 Club in New York.

"You had to know somebody to get in there," he said.

"You were considered a VIP if maitre d' Isidor Freeman, the owner's nephew, called you by your first name."

Just down the street from the Chesapeake is the Everyman Theater, located on the former site of the Famous Ballroom, where the lure of the Left Bank Jazz Society brought black and white audiences together in one room. "It was racially mixed at a time when that was not acceptable," Sandler said.

By reminding his readers about those moments, Sandler hopes to rekindle appreciation of community life, even if it wasn't perfect. "I hate to idealize my eras," he said. "We didn't have crime back then. We didn't have air conditioning, either."

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