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MISS JENNIE'S CRUSADE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The city paid neighbors to move away. The school closed. The buildings decayed. But someone stayed behind. Now she's fighting for the 17 families who still call Fairfield home.

Look at her fingers. Musician's fingers if ever God glued digits to a hand. Elongated slivers of ebony -- delicate, splendid, powerful. They have coaxed harmony from church organs and pianos almost since forever, and now at the age of 90, an age when most fingers are trembly and uncertain, they behave like children, scrambling excitedly around the exotic shape of a guitar neck for the first time.

But these are also fingers that never had the luxury of making only music. They have unloaded shoes from railroad cars during the first World War, pounded on doors looking for work during the second. They have gripped the wheel of a city cab, wielded the sharp pencil of an insurance agent, all in the act of making a living for their owner. They have buried a daughter and a son. They have shown two husbands the door and accepted one of them back; finally, after half a century, they gently laid him to rest as well.

Every morning without fail, they fling themselves to the reaches as Miss Jennie Fincher, their exacting owner, conducts the vigorous ritual ingrained from her days as a Girl Scout: Arms out, arms in, arms up, arms down, arms out, arms in, arms up, arms down . . .

"I also eat whole-wheat bread," notes Miss Jennie, an index finger lightly punctuating the breeze.

Those fingers, which have sewn and gardened and covered her face in moments of joy and surprise, are fussing now with a curly, gray wig, pulled over a head of frizzy, close-cropped white hair. Miss Jennie cannot help laughing at herself as she peers into the rear-view mirror of her Ford van as she backs out of her driveway in the remote South Baltimore community of Fairfield.

"You see what happens when you get to be 90?" she asks. "You get old!"

For 79 of those years she has lived in Fairfield, the once-picturesque jewel of South Baltimore. It has clung to the squat, heavily industrialized peninsula of land between the Patapsco River and Curtis Bay for more than a century, although the grip grows weaker by the day. Only 17 families remain now in a community that once numbered 4,000 and boasted a work force of more than 20,000. The city has encouraged people to leave the area to its inevitable total industrialization by buying their homes and paying for their relocation. Most have done just that, but not Jennie Fincher, not even when the public housing project shut down a few years ago and soon after the only school in the area closed its doors.

"They told me uptown, 'Why don't you move out?' " she says. "I told 'em, 'Because I don't want to move out.' This is a neighborhood where everybody knew everybody else. When anything happened, everybody was together."

But there is no longer an "everybody" in Fairfield. Today, as diesel after diesel rumbles past her front door, hauling chemical cargoes to and from the tank farms that begin just across the street, Miss Jennie Fincher is, practically speaking, alone. She is not just the last of the Fairfield Improvement Association, she is the Fairfield Improvement Association. Yet those strong fingers of hers hold on tight.

If you head northerly toward the Harbor Tunnel and look to you right as you approach the tube, an imposing phalanx of oil tanks obstructs your view of Jennie Fincher's home and the others along Chesapeake Avenue and Tate Street.

Fairfield was the place people went on a Sunday to take the air, to picnic, to stroll by the edge of the river. But the days when local hotels offered pig barbecues and prize fights were a hundred years ago. The area's geography made it an ideal place for heavy industry and in the early part of the century the Maryland Chrome Works, the Rasin Monumental Fertilizer Co. and the Impervious Product Co. became Fairfield fixtures, drawing as many as 2,000 workers daily to the area.

Yet even as the area became dominated by factories and chemical plants, the quiet neighborhood remained, boasting poplar-lined streets and an independence the rest of the world found almost unsettling.

"There is no color line in Fairfield," noted an observer, with some amazement, in a 1911 Sun story. "The blacks call the whites by their first names and the whites, fraternally, greet the blacks in the same spirit. They eat together and live together. Fairfield makes its own laws, settles its own disputes, cleans up its own bloody sawdust and ignores civilization."

Civilization ultimately returned the compliment with its latter-day indifference toward the area, but not before World War II, the heyday of Fairfield. Two facilities -- Maryland Dry Dock, then the largest ship repair yard in the country, and the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard -- employed 20,000 workers there. At the start of the war, a 300-unit, cottage-style housing project was built along Chesapeake Avenue to house soldiers and their families.

Even so, Fairfield retained its homey atmosphere. "It was a beautiful place," says Jennie Fincher. "All these streets had beautiful homes. There were trees, gardens, even some farms."

Perhaps the symbolic peak of Fairfield's lofty status occurred on Jan. 27, 1942. A trolley car stalled on the Hanover Street bridge, holding up more than 2,500 cars taking an estimated 10,000 factory workers to jobs in Fairfield. Stunned police officers described it as the greatest traffic jam in their memory.

But since the end of World War II, Fairfield's population has steadily shrunk as factories departed and more chemical firms have moved in and the neighborhood's ability to resist change weakened. By the 1950s the area -- still lacking sewers -- had so declined it was likened by some to a slum. Not until 1976, #F though, after dozens of complaints by Jennie Fincher and her fellow Improvement Association members, did the city finally connect Fairfield to public sewer lines. Plans to add curbs, gutters and storm drains have never come to pass.

"Obviously the city has limited resources for public improvements," says Rachael Edds, the acting director of the Department of Planning. "They want any improvements to be of a long-term use. ... Those improvements likely to have a limited life will not weigh as well."

Or, as another city official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, put it, "There is no way the city is going to spend millions for a neighborhood that is not even there anymore."

Indeed, U.S. Census Bureau figures show an almost 50 percent drop in population between 1950 and 1960 and a further two-thirds drop during the past 20 years. In 1990 the census reported 154 families still lived in the area; almost 90 percent of those have since moved away.

City Councilman Timothy Murphy, whose 6th District includes Fairfield, is sympathetic to the plight of those who remain, but doesn't see much hope. In 1984, he noted, a serious chemical spill at the Essex chemical plant in Fairfield badly traumatized the residents of the city-funded Fairfield Homes projects, and many wanted to move. He assisted several in relocating elsewhere, a job so successful that eventually the housing projects -- the old one-story cottages dating back to the war -- closed, and with them the public school.

"One spinoff is that the property now is ripe for additional industrial expansion down there," says Mr. Murphy. "Another spinoff: It's made it a virtual ghost town for the remainder of surviving residents. Do they have a right to fight a 'Last of the Mohicans' standoff? Yes, they do, and they should be applauded. But the situation is not going to reverse itself. The city and state have acknowledged that. Anything else is a romantic fantasy."

Jennie Fincher, though, has listened to this kind of rationale before.

"We go uptown to City Hall and they tell us they don't have any money to do the improvements," she says. "If I had money I'd be up in the United States Courthouse. We've paid taxes all these many years. It's highway robbery, taking your money and giving you nothing for it."

The sign on the side of her van reads: "Retired. No worry, n hurry, no phone, no boss." In truth, she is one of those people who can never retire, not even at 90. It is a curse and a blessing from childhood.

When her father died in 1914, her mother moved her from Virginia to Fairfield and took a job unloading freight cars full of shoes. "I was always small so my mother made me wear a long dress," she remembers. "She thought I would be taken as an older person so I could get a job. It worked. I unloaded shoes then and I've worked since all my life."

She married her first husband at 20 and had two children -- a daughter died at birth and a son survived World War II only to die of a gunshot wound incurred one night "uptown." Miss Jennie, meanwhile, divorced her husband. She says he drank too much. She lived with her mother in Fairfield for 10 years until Robert Fincher proposed.

"I told him I didn't want a man who drank," she says. "He said he didn't drink. Well, he held out about eight months. One day when I came home from work he was stoned. It was a shock. One thing I didn't want was another husband who loved alcohol. And I just told him I couldn't put up with a drinker for a husband. So I left him right here in Fairfield."

In fact she left him with her mother, moving right out of the house where they'd all lived, into another house down the street, bought with carefully saved money from her job as an insurance saleswoman. She obtained a second divorce, but a year later, Robert Fincher reappeared at her door.

"He saw that I meant it," she says, nodding her head righteously. "And he came to himself. He really did change. He cut that drinking stuff out and became a really upstanding man. We remarried and were married 48 years when he died."

A faraway smile has formed now, a faint glint just behind her eyes. "Yes, indeedy," she says, her head continuing to nod. "He was the best husband in the world."

She drives with the practiced ease of a former taxi driver, inchin deftly but breathtakingly past mammoth diesels and trash trucks that crawl up and down the potholed back roads of this tiny neighborhood. There were never more than a dozen streets in all, if you didn't count the housing projects across Chesapeake Avenue -- which no one does these days since no one lives there anymore.

"It was a mixed neighborhood," she says. "Whites and blacks lived together, everybody got along, and there was no trouble at all." Most whites moved out a few years ago, she says. Like her, most of the remaining holdouts are longtime residents of the area.

She stops her van in the middle of rutted Brady Avenue. On either side of the road she takes in an unrelenting scene of desolation: boarded-up houses, one after the other, stripped by scavengers of their hardware -- even their siding. For a moment ** she just sits and stares. The entire street is overrun with weeds; ++ once-tidy lawns are buried under mounds of trash dumped by haulers in the middle of the night and now, brazenly, even in broad daylight.

"People panicked," she says. "People got all upset. They heard the city was going to take Fairfield." Rather than condemn the area and force people out, the city decided to offer a voluntary buyout plan. Still, she says, "Everyone became discouraged and jumped up and wanted to move. They sold their houses and moved uptown."

She flexes her fingers, sheathed in brown cotton gardening gloves.

"My friends were all surprised I didn't move," she says, easing the van forward again, carefully negotiating around a pile of old tires and mattresses. The rubble derails her train of thought.

"Uptown, if people put things in a road like this they would have to move it," she says.

Near Tate Avenue she stops to talk to Hubert Robertson. He has lived in Fairfield almost 50 years, raised his children and sent them on their way. The ruins of the Victory elementary school are a stone's throw over his shoulder. He is yanking old nails from scrap lumber and grumbling about the deterioration all around him.

"Years ago there was something to work for here," he says, focusing all his attention on a stubborn nail embedded in a plank. "There's nothing you can do now. What can a 70-year-old man do? I don't know when I'll move, but I'm tired of fighting."

But when he is asked why he has bothered to stay, he stops yanking on the nail. He regards his questioner the way an old man always reacts to impertinence.

"Why do you stay in a place?" he repeats. "Why . . . because you survive!"

A block away, in the midst of more debris and squalor, Miss Jennie stops the van in front of an oasis of sorts, the tidy, neatly kept home of Fairfield's newest resident, Dora Branco. She and her husband Phillip have lived here only four years, but their house has been in the family for decades. They are young and hoping to save money so someday they can move to a better place -- although Ms. Branco tells Miss Jennie she almost wouldn't mind staying.

"We would live here if it weren't for the trash," she says. "It seems like every year it gets worse. They dump it right on the street. We call to complain at least three times a week, but no one ever hears us or cares."

A few doors from Ms. Branco's house stands the First Baptist Church of Fairfield, also well-maintained -- like most of the inhabited homes in Fairfield -- but within sight of a mountain of rubble across the street that looms twice as high as the church. For years Miss Jennie attended the local Methodist church, but when it closed down not long ago she switched affiliations without missing a beat.

"I don't like to be away from a church," she says. "So I became a Baptist. It doesn't matter. When we die there are only two places to go."

The pastor, the Rev. Howard A. Ricks, gladly accepted Miss Jennie, who sings in the choir and plays the organ. In May she will give a recital at the church.

"Sister Fincher is so alive and involved," he says, "full of enthusiasm, full of spirit. She makes you forget all about her age."

Most of the 60 members of the church, says Rev. Ricks, do not live in Fairfield but return each Sunday from wherever they have relocated. When they come they are buttonholed by Miss Jennie, whose personal campaign to revitalize the area has been pretty much a stalled, low-key affair in recent months. She has found new purpose reorganizing the the church's Missionary society so that its goal is to push city officials to clean up Fairfield. Her spark has been contagious.

"Even though people have moved out," says Rev. Ricks, "this church has no intention of moving anywhere."

"I used to live right here," says Miss Jennie as the van turn down Remley Street. There is no house where she points, only a vacant lot overrun with debris. "They tore the house down. I couldn't watch it. See all this trash? . . . There used to trees over in there. . . . All of this, there were just lots of houses . . . lots of houses."

She sees a doctor every three months, she says, and worries occasionally about an enlarged heart she's had since her daughter was born. "The doctor, he told me, 'I don't know what you're doing but whatever it is, keep doing it.' " She shrugs. "Every morning I get up out of bed and I pray and then I put my pad down by the bed and I exercise."

In between her jobs as an insurance salesman and taxi driver she managed to complete high school at night, and then completed three years at Morgan State the same way. She quit finally when her husband Robert became terminally ill with cancer, but she has never really stopped moving.

"The only thing I'm really afraid of is a bad dog," she says. "I don't mean a pit bull. Those little things? I can outrun them. But a police dog? That's the only thing I'm afraid of."

She is nevertheless worried, even somewhat resigned, that no one will heed her call for improving her beloved Fairfield.

"They can at least clean the place up," she says. "Those folks uptown won't do nothing. But I know there's somebody above those folks uptown. God is above everything. I leave it to him to provide."

With that, the van has reached the end of Chesapeake Avenue, the way barred by the chain-link gate of a chemical company.

"Oh, there used to be houses all the way down to the railroad tracks," she says, looking beyond the factory, even through it. "But now they're gone."

She, however, remains. And remains.

And watching her, one begins to question whether even the biggest, baddest dog in the world could make her let go. There aren't many people out here anymore, but none of them would be crazy enough to bet on the dog.

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