Museum exhibit a charming tribute to city's history

January 19, 2008|By JACQUES KELLY

Ilearned some potent lessons in Baltimore history on winter Sunday afternoons in the 1950s. With my father, Joe Kelly, at the wheel, and my mother, Stewart, providing lively commentary to her children, we would be off to the old Peale Museum, Fort McHenry and most of the other local places that regularly had exhibits about the city. Along the way, my parents told compelling stories about the Baltimore that passed by the windshield.

There would be Sundays when I was assigned to St. Ignatius Church with my father. As an 8-year-old, the sermon preached from the high pulpit seemed to take an hour. By the time the priest spoke - in Latin - the phrase "Go. The Mass has ended," I was ready for the Calvert Street doors.

My father often had additional plans for the early afternoon. We'd drive to old East Baltimore and park at Central Avenue and Lombard Street. There was enough of the downtown Jewish neighborhood left to impart a lasting impression. There I learned of salted pumpernickel bread sticks from Stone's bakery. I saw live chickens in crates; I watched cream cheese being scooped out of long, narrow wooden boxes. There were swimming carp in tubs. This was not the neighborhood A&P. My father filled a couple of bags and his purchases were the hit of a delicious Sunday spread served later in the day.

Years later, that Lombard Street experience has been recorded in a historic exhibit at Baltimore's shrines of history. This first-rate display, the work of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, is aptly called the Voices of Lombard Street and carries the subtitle "A Century of Change in East Baltimore." The show opened last fall and I finally got there this week. There's plenty of time to catch it, as the exhibit will remain in place throughout this year.

This is a thoughtful presentation, open-minded, lively, ready to talk about Baltimore's history and people. I was fascinated to look at objects such as the leather suitcase a Jewish immigrant would have carried from Europe to Baltimore and the claw-footed, cast-iron bathtub that would occasionally hold one of those live carp fish. There's no preaching here; it's all about people.

I've always had an interest in the way Baltimoreans will move around the city and how the city reacts to those population shifts. There is an excellent treatment of the Flag House public housing projects, which until fairly recently stood near the shops of East Lombard Street. There is also a segment on the riots that confronted Baltimore after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Bringing us into the present, there is also a section that shows how recent developers have reworked the old neighborhood with new rowhouses under the name of Albemarle Square.

The show's fine accompanying catalog is dedicated to my friend, teacher and newspaper colleague, Earl Pruce, longtime News American librarian, who died last year at age 97.

Earl saved many of the photographs in this 170-page book. A quiet, self-effacing gentleman, he was an indefatigable fact-checker and Baltimore scholar. It's nice to remember him in a fitting way.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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