Origin and change in West Baltimore 50 neighborhoods examined in book

It is no easy task to tell the stories of West Baltimore's many neighborhoods in some 200 pages.

Roderick N. Ryon, a Towson State University history professor, has taken up that challenge in a new book, "West Baltimore Neighborhoods, Sketches of Their History 1840-1960."


It was produced at the University of Baltimore's Institute for Publications Design and is the second in a series of works on the city's neighborhoods.

"The Westside was the setting to a major social process within Baltimore -- demographic and ethnic change. . . . Here especially the phenomenon of 'changing neighborhood' was acted out and molded the modern city. Attention is overdue," Ryon states in his preface.


Attention is indeed overdue. In addition to words, the author includes many excellent old photographs to tell the stories of 50 different neighborhoods.

That feat of boiling down what amounts to a profile of a neighborhood into an average of about four pages each makes for a lot of condensing.

The heart of Ryon's story seems to concentrate on the parallelogram of streets that run to the northwest roughly from Mount Royal Avenue to Fremont Avenue.

Herein is the historic heart of Baltimore's African-American community -- its homes, shops, theaters, streetcar lines, churches and institutions. This section is all inclusive, describing neighborhoods from West to Southwest Baltimore.

Among the better known ones are Bolton Hill, Madison, McCulloh Homes, Murphy Homes, Upton, Druid Heights, Hollins Park, Pratt-Monroe, Bentalou-Smallwood, Mill Hill, Poe Homes, Poppleton, Franklin Square, Union Square, West Pratt, Booth-Boyd, Lexington, Harlem Park, Sandtown-Winchester, Greater Rosemont, Allendale, Rognel Heights, Irvington, Edmondson Village, Easterwood, Ten Hills, Hunting Ridge, Westgate, West Hills, Beechfield and Yale Heights.

The author speaks of the way people lived -- from the dank, poorly lighted alley houses to the most gilded and wallpapered drawing rooms of Eutaw Place. Along the way are countless middle- and working-class Baltimore rowhouses with three bedrooms upstairs; a bath, kitchen, parlor and dining room on the first floor and maybe an extra toilet in the basement.

The author is a native of Waldorf who moved to Baltimore 28 years ago when he began his teaching career at Towson State. He now lives on Chestnut Hill Avenue in Ednor Gardens. He has often taught courses on the history of the working class and the story of ethnic change. But he has other interests.

"I liked learning and writing about residential architecture . . . the pre-Civil War housing on Lemmon Street, the dormers, the gables, the alley housing," Ryon said in an interview this week.


In a few places in the soft-bound book, Ryon quotes notable members of neighborhoods. This is how entertainer Cab Calloway describes his youth in what would be called Upton today:

"One year I was spending three or four hours in church every Sunday plus Bible classes during the week, Bible school every day during the summer and singing in the junior choir and the next I was part of a gang of guys who were basically young hustlers. . . .

"I guess I grew up quickly. . . . On the other hand, my family and my music teachers, whom I loved and respected, were rather puritanical people: churchgoing, middle class, strivers. . . . I spent a lot of time in that rough and raucous Baltimore Negro night life with loud music, heavy drinking and the kind of moral standards that my parents looked down on. I guess I managed pretty well in both."

In another spot, Ryon describes life in the Sandtown neighborhood: "Hard work by adults and children molded family and neighborhood life. Men held several outside jobs, women provided for boarders as well as working outside and children worked as errand runners and delivery boys."

These sketches of neighborhood life make for some of the book's most delightful reading. Other portions are clinical and workmanlike, more of a catalog of facts about churches, schools and industry. A few more details and some sharper editing would have helped.

But when the text gets a little dry, there are always the photographs, which depict the old Carey movie theater (Carey and Presstman streets) with the silent version of novelist Edna Ferber's "So Big," or boys in knickers at a fountain in Harlem Park, or the old House of the Good Shepherd at Union Square, or the temporary shacks that served the Lafayette Market after it burned in the early 1950s. The book gets one demerit, however.


The cover photo, excellent though it is, is not the 1000 block of W. Baltimore St., as its caption states. It's the 1000 block of E. Baltimore St. in the heart of the old Jewish neighborhood.