Glorious memories of life on Lauretta

August 24, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

Someone has "planted" some blue plastic flowers around a tree on Lauretta Avenue, perhaps the last vestige of the kind of loving care that this old street once received. For the most part, though, the families that used to polish their rowhouses' marble steps and the kids who used to skate down safe and narrow streets have long since moved away.

But next month, they'll get back together for a picnic. They'll eat; they'll catch up; they'll remember the old West Baltimore neighborhood that many of them left more than 30 years ago.

They just won't be going anywhere near it.

"Oh, no!" said Clementine Holmes Giles, 63, one of the organizers of the reunion. "It's horrible down there now."

The reunion of the 1800 and 1900 blocks of Lauretta Ave. will be held almost 20 miles away in Owings Mills, far from the depressing sight of boarded-up homes, R.I.P. graffiti and weedy vacant lots that their neighborhood has become.

So the Sept. 9 event will be a reunion, but also something of a requiem for a lost community.

When Lauretta Avenue gets in the paper these days, it's generally in obituaries, noting the death of a veteran or a Mason who grew up on the street, or in the Police Blotter column: A couple of years ago, a 15-year-old who had been in the Stop Snitchin' video was arrested on gun and drug charges in a house on the 1900 block; in 2001, there was a double fatal shooting on the 1800 block that police thought might be linked to a double shooting across the street the day before.

"It's a war zone now," said another organizer, Frances Williams, 72. "I rode down there a couple weeks ago, and I just sat in my car and cried. What you see now isn't what we had."

What once was a black, middle-class neighborhood is now a blighted, frightening couple of blocks, squeezed between Edmondson Avenue and the Highway to Nowhere (officially, U.S. 40), just west of Fulton Avenue.

The enclave was considered something of an exclusive neighborhood by blacks, Williams said, because they generally didn't live west of Fulton Avenue until the late 1940s or early '50s -- except on those two blocks of Lauretta and the adjacent Kirby Lane.

"People used to say, once you crossed Fulton Avenue, that's where the green grass started," said Loretta Towson Thompson, who grew up at 1815 Lauretta and thinks she might have been named for the street.

Thompson said the idea for a gathering of the old neighborhood came in part from a family reunion she and her sister, Gloria Towson Williams, had been organizing. As the two sole survivors of their family of eight siblings, they realized it might be a small affair so they started contacting friends from Lauretta Avenue.

Many of them had stayed in touch over the years, or would run into each other at the office -- several of them worked at the Social Security Administration. They passed the word around, made up fliers -- I happened to see one at a state office building downtown -- and eventually rented a pavilion in a park in Owings Mills for a picnic.

Their need to remember Lauretta Avenue as it used to be grew stronger as they grew older.

"It's our last go-round, maybe," Giles said. "It's just to get the old neighborhood together."

Without their memories, this would just be another forgotten, neglected city neighborhood, one that was left to decay as families moved outward from the city, one that was further diminished when the Highway to Nowhere ripped up many West Side neighborhoods in the 1970s.

"I could name every family from the top of the street to the bottom of the street," said Williams, a retired auditor for the Army, who grew up at 1808 Lauretta, down the block from the house her grandparents had lived in since the 1930s.

There was a bakery, Kessler's, on her street, which would sell the kids penny bags of cake crumbs, and Williams used to play jacks on the sidewalk with 10 smooth stones and a tennis ball.

The former residents remember walking to the bridge at Edmondson and Pulaski to watch the trains rumble by and, later, going to movies at a theater there named, appropriately enough, the Bridge. Then there was the Uptowne, a nightclub that was apparently a hangout for some of the Colts, and the streetcar that ran on Edmondson that they and their mothers would take downtown to shop.

Their nostalgia for the neighborhood, though, doesn't mask the realities of Baltimore's past.

"There was a White Coffee Pot restaurant in the neighborhood, but we weren't allowed to actually eat there of course," Thompson, 68, said. "We could go in there and buy carryout, but it was a while before we could sit there."

She recalls the street occasionally winning a city contest for the cleanest block. "Mr. Robinson -- I can't remember his first name -- was in charge. We kept the block so nice ... little window boxes. We had to do the marble steps twice a day. The city would give a prize, and our pictures would be in the paper."

They all live in better neighborhoods now, and yet it's hard to imagine those will ever hold a similar place in their hearts as Lauretta Avenue.

"Everybody knew everybody there. Everyone knew whose child you were," said Barbara Smith Greene, 65, who grew up on Kirby Lane, where the houses have since been torn down for what once might have been a playground or a park but now is a garden of weeds and cracked pavement. "That was when neighborhoods were truly neighborhoods."

Giles, who lives in Catonsville, agrees: "It was just a different time and place."

jean marbella@baltsun.com

Former residents of the neighborhood interested in the reunion can contact Frances Williams at 410-466-4510.

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