When Baltimore burned

Four decades after riots damaged lives, city's image, we're still picking up pieces

Sun special report: 40 years later

March 30, 2008|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun reporter

The former mayor climbed from the car and reached back 40 years. He remembered this corner, Broadway and Fayette Street, when it was on fire.

"It was completely engulfed," said Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, as he gestured to the site where a warehouse was torched by rioters. He had been mayor for barely four months when, on April 6, 1968, the city erupted in violence after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King.

Now 78, D'Alesandro held in his mottled hands a photograph of this place, showing the young mayor looking grim as fire hoses doused the smoldering ruins. When the smoke cleared after four days of rioting, six people had been killed, 700 injured, 1,000 businesses looted or burned and 5,800 people arrested.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Sunday's editions incorrectly reported where Sharon Singer's family moved after their home and business were destroyed in the 1968 riots. Her parents, Sidney and Ida Pats, moved to Northwest Baltimore. Singer and her husband later settled in Reisterstown.
The Sun regrets the errors.

The physical toll was enormous. But in the years that followed, the psychological damage hurt the city even more. People, D'Alesandro said, "became scared about Baltimore."

The riots created in the public imagination an urban wasteland of shattered storefronts and bombed-out buildings. Forces already in motion - middle-class flight, the departure of small businesses, the withdrawal of white families from city schools - accelerated.

"Imagine yourself as a merchant, saying, `If this terrible thing happened, why won't it happen again?'" said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, the city's deputy housing commissioner in the 1970s. "For a lot of people, white and ultimately black, the suburbs looked pretty good."

The ripples would travel across decades: A family whose pharmacy was looted left for the suburbs, where their children made lives separate from the city. A community activist watched as the blight of vacant homes led to the scourge of drugs and crime. A man who went to an integrated high school in 1968 now sends his daughter to a nearly all-black school and wonders if the education is as good.

For civic leaders, the riots forced a sense of urgency to build a better city. Baltimore won federal money for a campaign to provide decent housing for the poor. Ground was broken on the Maryland Science Center to draw middle-class families back to the city, if only to visit. But the housing was still in deteriorating neighborhoods, and it was years before some middle-class families came back downtown.

Baltimore had begun losing residents in the 1950s, as the promise of bigger homes, greener lawns and safer streets - the American dream, available on the installment plan - drew thousands to the suburbs. But after the riots, the flight became a stampede. The city lost 13 percent of its population - 120,000 residents - in the decade between 1970 and 1980.

Those who left took with them their tax money and, in some cases, their jobs. Increasingly, they shopped and worked in the suburbs. From 1969 to 1980, the number of jobs in the city fell sharply, from 540,000 to 505,000.For the first time, Baltimore made the list of the nation's 10 poorest cities.

Those who stayed lived in hollowed-out neighborhoods where the drug trade took hold, replacing honest businesses. Washington at last took notice of the nation's shameful housing conditions, and Baltimore received millions in federal money to provide decent, affordable homes for the poor.

But jobs were still disappearing, and the schools were growing ever more segregated as white families moved away or sent their children to private or parochial schools. The system lost more than 50,000 students in the '70s, most of them white. Today, a black student in Baltimore has less chance of encountering a white student than in any other large system in the country.

"The riots punctuated and accelerated changes that may have taken place anyhow," said Howell Baum, a professor of urban studies at the University of Maryland. "They added their own unfortunate flavor to it, in that lots of folks felt beat up."

The riots alone cannot be blamed for the decline of the city, but they left a mark. Forty years later, Baltimore is still recovering.

`Just an inferno'

In the hours after the riots, a child of the city became a convert to the suburbs.

Sharon Singer grew up on North Avenue above her parents' pharmacy. She took ballet classes at the Peabody Institute and rode the bus to Orioles games at Memorial Stadium. She did her homework in the store and chatted with the customers.

She was 16 in 1968, a student in the Western High School "A program." The school's population was evenly split, black and white, but, Singer says, "We thought of ourselves as a family."

On Sunday morning, April 7, Singer and her mother went shopping and then picked up her sister at Baltimore Hebrew College. Singer had her learner's permit, and her mother let her drive the black Oldsmobile 98 home. They took the newly opened Jones Falls Expressway, getting off at North Avenue.

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