Brothers Gilbert and Leslie Polt in 1960 - mowing the lawn in… (Courtesy Jewish Museum…)
As a child in the mid-1950s, I asked my mother why we didn't live in a modern house built of new, salmon-toned brick like my schoolmates. We lived in a traditional city neighborhood, in a three-story 1915 rowhouse. We had only a small backyard that lacked a barbecue area or swing set.
A new exhibition staged by the Jewish Museum of Maryland and presented at downtown's Enoch Pratt Free Library examines this same point, and many others. "Jews on the Move: Baltimore and the Suburban Exodus, 1945-1968" demonstrates how thousands of families called up Davidson movers and took off for ranchers and split levels in greater Northwest Baltimore.
Like the Jewish families on the other side of the Jones Falls, many Baltimoreans were pulling up stakes and moving on. The show addresses race, and racial change, but it mostly examines why the suburbs were so strong a pull.
"It's a national story, with a local twist," the shows says on its nicely laid-out panels. I read with interest the basic tale that people wanted to catch the energy and style that the suburban neighborhoods presented. "After chaotic years of depression and war, Americans wanted to settle down," the show states.
An anonymous woman is quoted as saying: "We had to leave my in-law's. ... We had a baby and I felt it was time to go."
Television promoted a lifestyle that was definitely not about rowhouses and corner drugstores and delicatessens — and mothers-in-law or aunts living under the same roof. Sociologists defined this new way as the nuclear family.
"Baltimore's Jewish families settled en masse in a single section of the metro area — northwest," the show states. "Today four of five Jews remain concentrated in greater Northwest Baltimore. ... Jewish developers filled the rolling hills of the Northwest suburbs with ranch houses, split levels, split foyers, and colonials."
Real estate brokers Fiola Blum and Mal Sherman, and many others, sold the houses often built by Joseph Meyerhoff, Edward Myerberg, Harry Sampson, Melvyn Goldman, Sam Gorn and Ellwood Sinsky.
Johns Hopkins University students, enrolled in a Program in Museums and Society, paged through old copies of the Jewish Times for the exhibit.
The exhibit also has a section called "Jewish Geography," subdivisions with names like Caves Park, Eden Roc and Ranchleigh.
"The suburban exodus was virtually complete by 1968. By then, 80 percent of Jews lived in greater Northwest from Upper Park Heights deep into Baltimore County. That ratio has remained remarkably stable," according to the show.
"Pikesville, not Randallstown, has become the center of Jewish Baltimore, home to one-third of the metro area's Jews."
The exhibit uses photographs to show couples posed in old city backyards, with their wooden back porches and occasional fire escapes or on the 1920s front porches seen all over the lower Park Heights neighborhood. Contrasted with this are photos of people rather carefully standing at 1950s outdoor metal barbecue grills or parking cars at the old Mandell Ballow shop in a Reisterstown Road strip center.
Rabbi Israel Goldman, of the Chizuk Amuno congregation, said prophetically at the time: "Our people are moving from the overcrowded cities to the spacious suburbs."