Lombard as center of Jewish life

Museum exhibit recalls time when street was bustling with merchants and immigrants

October 15, 2007|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN REPORTER

The crowds and the noise, the live chickens at Yankelove's Poultry, the bagels at Wartzman's and the cream cheese at Smelkinson's, the sidewalk fruit stands and pickle barrels ... they've all vanished from East Lombard Street, once the heart of Jewish East Baltimore.

All that remains is a trio of delicatessens - Lenny's, Weiss' and Attman's - and, just off Lombard on Lloyd Street, B'nai Israel, the sole surviving active synagogue, and the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

But all the memories, and a happy reunion of former East Lombard Street regulars, converged on the museum yesterday. Hundreds came for the opening of a new exhibit celebrating the all-but-vanished immigrant neighborhood and the vibrant Jewish culture that thrived there through most of the 20th century.

"Voices of Lombard Street: A Century of Change in East Baltimore" recalls the colorful era in pictures, artifacts and the oral histories of dozens of former residents and business owners.

"It was an area everybody came down to. That's why you see so many people here," said Louis Yankelov, 71, whose great-uncle owned Yankelove's Poultry.

A klezmer band played, and Sonya Weinstein Taylor was swept with emotion, recalling those days.

"I think about my grandfather, and what the whole family endured in Russia, and what they endured when they first got here," she said, her eyes welling. "It's a feeling you have when you come here and see this, and the memories you have, and how wonderful it was."

Now 72, the Cross Keys resident grew up above Weinstein's Meat Market, the store her grandfather founded on West 36th Street in Hampden. But on Saturday night after sundown, East Lombard Street was where everyone gathered.

"Everything looked like a fantasy wonderland to me," Taylor said. "It was like going to a foreign country when you came down here" compared to Hampden, she said.

It wasn't an exclusively Jewish experience. Newly landed Italians and Poles, and African-Americans just arrived from the South also saw East Lombard as their shopping center and town square, according to the exhibit co-curated by Anita Kassof, the Jewish Museum's associate director, and research historian Deb Weiner.

They describe the neighborhood's origins as part of Jones Town, one of Baltimore's original villages, and its growth as a poor, crowded, community of Irish and German immigrants.

By the late 19th century, economic and political upheavals in Southern and Eastern Europe brought Italians, Poles and East European Jews. The new arrivals worked in the city's canneries, transportation industry and garment sweatshops.

Lucy Vecera, 76, whose mother immigrated from Italy in 1929, grew up on Stiles Street in Little Italy, a few blocks from Lombard.

"It was our shopping mall," she said. "As kids, we thought it was like a zoo." There were live chickens in cages, fish in store windows and lambs at Passover and Easter.

She remembered her mother haggling in broken English with the Jewish owners of a shoe store on Lombard near Central Avenue. And she still marvels at the cleanliness of Smelkinson's, the kosher dairy store, and the jumble of vendors' stalls on the sidewalk.

"And you walked up and down, and there were rabbis, and everybody looked so different and exotic. We thought the only people in the world were Jews and Italians," Vecera recalled.

Jerry Fineblum, 84, lives in Pikesville now. But he grew up above Fineblum's, his father's wholesale candy, tobacco and liquor store at 309 S. Broadway. He remembered fighting the Polish kids after school; socializing at the Jewish Educational Alliance; stopping at Tulkoff's for fruit and horseradish, Smelkinson's for cream cheese and Crystal's Bakery for bagels.

"Everything was on the sidewalk," he said. "And there were big cars moving up and down, and you'd have to squeeze through people to get there every Saturday night."

The Jewish neighborhood's decline accelerated after World War II, as more families prospered and moved away from downtown. Crumbling rowhouses were swept aside by urban renewal and replaced in 1955 by Flag House Courts, 487 high-rise apartments.

The new homes seemed much better at first. But the high-rise model of public housing eventually sank into crime and poverty. Rioting and fires after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 provided the final blow for many businesses, and Flag House was demolished in 2001.

East Lombard is still a gap-toothed landscape of stores and weedy lots. Only in recent years has redevelopment restored some life to the old neighborhood. Albemarle Square's new mixed-income homes look more like the old rowhouse neighborhoods.

"It's beautiful, what they've done here now with the housing, with the whole area from Little Italy to `Jewtown,' as the Polish people called it ... lovingly," Fineblum said.


If you go

The Jewish Museum of Maryland is at 15 Lloyd St., just off Lombard Street, three blocks east of the Inner Harbor. It is an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

"Voices of Lombard Street" will continue for a year. The museum is open from noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday. For information: 410-732-6400, ext. 14.

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