Baltimore Book Festival 2011: Tales of Mobtown boom, bust and bigotry energize fest

Attman's Deli during the Baltimore riots of '68
Attman's Deli during the Baltimore riots of '68 (Handout photo)

Among hundreds of books sure to be embraced or argued about at this weekend's Baltimore Book Festival, one potent group narrative leaps from the pages of the schedule.

A string of tenacious writers are presenting new or reissued books that chronicle mythic pockets or nearly forgotten areas of Baltimore's past. They tell untold stories of 20th-century Baltimore and how it became the city we know today, and present a kinetic tapestry of a city in violent motion.

"Home Front Baltimore," "Not In My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City" and "Baltimore '68: Riots and Rebirth in an American City" chronicle a metropolis in perpetual, embattled transition — bustling in World War II, weakening with suburban flight, and dividing along racial and ethnic lines. They are indelible chapters in an epic urban story.

'Home Front Baltimore' by Gilbert Sandler

Best known these days for his "Baltimore Stories" on WYPR, Sandler embodies his city's quirky vitality and unpredictable humor — sometimes whimsical, sometimes common-sensical. But when he asked senior Baltimoreans to reminisce about life in Baltimore during World War II, the request astounded them. "They were surprised that somebody was interested," he said. They'd tell him, good-naturedly, "You don't want to talk about the war — nobody cares about the war after all these years."

Sandler started finding sources at a VFW post in Hampden and the Roland Park Place retirement community. He talked to people who remember the air raid drills or who worked at Bethlehem Steel's shipyards or Bendix Radio.

Sandler said he started this poignant, ironic, often profoundly jolly book in June 2006 — more than 60 years after he served in the Battle of Saipan.

"I was going through the library of The Sun, looking for ideas for a column," he said. "And I realized, the ballgames were going on, the weddings were going on, the movies were having grand openings and life was going on. And why not? I draw no moral from it. This happened there, and this happened here."

Sandler will talk about his book at 4 p.m. Sunday at the George Peabody Library.

'Not in My Neighborhood' by Antero Pietila

Pietila first visited the United States from Finland as an aspiring journalist in 1964. "I came from a country where everybody was the same; the biggest differences were height and hair color," Pietila said. He had served The Sun as a reporter and a member of the editorial board for more than three decades when he got the idea for this book. But this savvy, committed journalist slammed into a psychic wall when he started investigating Mobtown's racial, religious and ethnic divisions and how they reconfigured the city.

"It is like amnesia hit the city," Pietila said. "Nobody wanted to talk about it.

"Not in My Neighborhood" — a muscular social history with a robust narrative drive — starts in 1910. But it builds to the post-World War II tumult of Jews demanding entrance to restricted communities such as Roland Park and "blockbusters" flipping white homes to black families for outrageous profits. Pietila, like Sandler, refrains from moralizing. When he thought of Jewish real estate and homebuilding giants like Joseph Meyerhoff, who conducted business according to the anti-Semitic and racist protocols of the time, Pietila asked himself whether he would have behaved any differently.

"What would I have been in that situation? If Meyerhoff had done what some people wanted him to do and become nondiscriminatory when the market was anti-Jewish and anti-black, he could have been driven out of business. Would I have been a hero or a coward? Fortunately, I don't really have to deal with that question."

Pietila and Elizabeth M. Nix, who co-edited "Baltimore '68," will appear with Rhonda Williams, author of "The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women's Struggles against Urban Inequality," at 5 p.m. Saturday on the Literary Salon Stage.

'Baltimore '68' by Elizabeth M. Nix

When Nix, director of the University of Baltimore's Civic Engagement program, began overseeing a public history project about the Baltimore riots of 1968, she and her colleagues at the University of Baltimore, Jessica I. Elfenbein and Thomas L. Hollowak, found that legend had overtaken reality.

"So many people just pegged their understanding of the city on the events of April '68, and said, 'Oh, the city was a great place before the riots and after it a disaster. We don't go downtown anymore, we wouldn't go to the Enoch Pratt central branch, we just don't deal with the city since the riots.'"

They ended up co-editing "Baltimore '68," a kaleidoscopic anthology of revelatory essays and interviews. The high points are four vibrant, devastating oral histories that scrape the soot off the city's collective memory of the riots.

The portrait that emerges from all three books is of a city still waiting for a social movement that could harness its bristling energies. Nix sees signs of hope.

A community artist from the Maryland Institute College of Art, Christina Ralls, contacted people who had given oral histories or other help and materials to the "Baltimore '68" project. They met every Saturday for coffee and hashed out a vision for a mosaic that would sum up their experience. Then they made it — and it now adorns the lobby of the 33rd Street YMCA.

"It became a really great experience for people who did it — it was healing for a lot of people," Nix said. "There were people involved in looting, and people whose homes had been destroyed. And they were having coffee together."


If you go

The Baltimore Book Festival runs noon to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and noon to 7 p.m. Sunday at Mount Vernon Place, 600 N. Charles St. Call 410-752-8632 or go to baltimorebookfestival.com.

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