Book review: 'Not In My Neighborhood'

Ex-Sun author traces bigotry's role in shaping Baltimore

March 21, 2010|By Diane Scharper | Special to The Baltimore Sun

'Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City,' by Antero Pietila (Ivan R. Dee, 320 pages, $28.95)
Builder James W. Rouse is remembered as a visionary because of his shopping malls and new towns, like Columbia - promoted as free of racial discrimination. But Rouse had another, less egalitarian side, according to Antero Pietila, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and editorial writer. That side had shown itself a few years earlier in 1951 when, as vice president of the Northwood Co., Rouse looked the other way as blacks and Jews were excluded from the Northwood community.

Rouse is just one of the movers and shakers spotlighted in "Not In My Neighborhood," Pietila's eye-opening account of bigotry in Baltimore. The book spans about 100 years but focuses primarily on the years from World War II to the passage of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, the time when race relations reached a boiling point.

With its sensitive subject, this groundbreaking book is a monumental effort. Pietila spent seven years researching the people and stories in this account, which contains nearly 40 pages of notes. With facts, maps and charts, the book seems heavy at times. But Pietila hooks readers with anecdotes and arresting details. His description of Jack Goldenson during the 1968 riots on the roof of his delicatessen with a gray machine gun aimed at a surging mob is riveting.

As Pietila sees it, Baltimore's racial problems were exacerbated in 1910 when an African-American lawyer set up an office on McCulloh Street in a house he had bought from a white woman. Soon afterward, Baltimore enacted the first law in U.S. history to prohibit African-Americans from moving to white residential blocks and vice versa. Segregation existed in many Northern cities, Pietila explains. Baltimore, though, used the force of law to "achieve systemic, citywide separation." Numerous other cities, including Richmond, Va., Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta, followed suit.

When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the 1910 segregation law seven years later, Baltimore leaders weren't fazed. Covenants and other private agreements were used to bar blacks and Jews from certain neighborhoods. After the Supreme Court declared those unenforceable in 1948, Baltimore became a pioneer in blockbusting.

Most U.S. cities had separate housing markets for whites and blacks. But Baltimore, Pietila explains, had a three-tiered market: one for gentiles, one for Jews and one for blacks. It worked like a racially charged game of musical chairs. Gentiles moved out when Jews moved in. When Jewish housing demand weakened, houses went to blacks. The migration of Jews and blacks proceeded north and northwest from the harbor to Ashburton, to Windsor Hills, to Gwynn Oak and Woodlawn. Later, Jews moved to Pikesville and the Reisterstown Road corridor up to Owings Mills and Reisterstown. Gentiles moved east toward York Road or north toward Carroll County.

The bottom line is this: Gentiles excluded Jews and blacks from their neighborhoods using both legal and illegal means. Unscrupulous speculators took advantage of home sellers and buyers. Mortgage companies redlined neighborhoods where people could not get a regular mortgage, forcing them to rely on unscrupulous rent-to-buy schemes. With blockbusting techniques, flipping, and subprime mortgages, Baltimore neighborhoods and bank accounts were destroyed - to say nothing of people's souls.

Pietilla blames Baltimore's racial troubles on many people, including blockbuster Manuel Bernstein. But some, like Dale Anderson, former Baltimore County executive, deserve more blame than others, Pietilla writes.

Pietila says Anderson tried to push blacks from Towson by building a thoroughfare through the heart of an African-American neighborhood, thereby effectively eliminating it. In Catonsville, Anderson and the Baltimore County Council replaced blacks' homes with snack shacks and gas stations. Throughout the county, they decimated at least 20 old African-American settlements.

Race relations in the city were also troubling. In 1966, the Baltimore City Council considered a bill outlawing racial discrimination in housing. When an interfaith group testified in support of the bill, the members were spat upon, accused of moral blackmail and threatened with death. The bill was defeated, 13-8. After the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Baltimore, like other cities, exploded. To prevent an all-out race war, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 on April 11, which included provisions for fair housing. But by then, as Pietila vividly describes it, Baltimore - with its ugly racial and ethnic prejudices - had shown itself to be anything but Charm City.

Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University.


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