Residents divided by I-170 plans meet again

Reunion, memories sweet for former city neighbors

October 26, 2003|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Last night, as songs such as "Family Reunion" by the O'Jays and "Uptight" by Stevie Wonder played in the background, dozens of people who were displaced 35 years ago by the planned construction of Interstate 170 in West Baltimore talked and laughed, hugged and kissed, and reminisced about the good old days.

Those days were cut short when city leaders bought their parents' homes, forcing them to relocate.

As they became reacquainted -- some were seeing people for the first time in more than two or three decades -- it was clear this would be a special night.

"That's Ernestine, right?" Robert Tolson said as he stood to embrace Ernestine Hunter Drake, 65.

"Yea, and you're Robbie, right?" Drake replied.

"I have seen Mr. [Alfred] Tolson around because he used to be a bus driver," Drake said, referring to Robert Tolson's brother who retired in 1997 after 36 years. "But I hadn't seen Robert Tolson in about 40 years."

Drake said she wanted to attend "The Old Neighborhood Gang Reunion," held at a social club on Harford Road, just to see people and have fun.

Rochelle Davis, who with Anthony Speight and Alton West organized the affair, recalled last night that Drake's mother sold snowballs from her home in the 1900 block of W. Franklin St.

"Whew, they were so good," said Davis, 56. "Sometimes we'd be standing down the street looking to see if she'd put an ice block out there," signaling that she was preparing to shave ice to make the frozen treat.

Such memories were plentiful last night, as people talked about growing up on Franklin, Mulberry, Payson and Monroe streets. Their neighborhoods were destroyed by the highway project, which today begins at Greene Street downtown and runs only 1.36 miles through West Baltimore before abruptly stopping and dumping motorists back onto city streets.

West talked about Walter Smith, who organized a Lion's Club, enabling neighborhood boys to compete in baseball, football and other sports. West smiled when Smith's son, Barry, showed him a picture of the boys in team uniforms.

"Oh, man, you've got to make me a copy of that," West said. He was delighted when told he could have the photo.

Barry Smith said his father organized teams because "he saw a need for these young fellows who were running wild throughout the neighborhood, including me." He said his father arranged camping trips and hikes, exposing them to new activities.

Last night, decks of cards were available for a few hands of poker, bid whist or pinochle. And there was a spread including homemade cakes. But playing cards and eating took a back seat to catching up.

"It's wonderful. I mean, you see people and of course they've changed, but you can still see the child in them," said Joan Wilmore, who grew up in the 1900 block of W. Franklin St. and was 19 when her parents moved because of the I-170 project.

Last night, no one seemed to care about I-170 or the fact that it was never fully constructed.

As Speight put it: "This is a good turnout, and it's what I envisioned it to be -- rekindling old times."

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