The story is much like the one Barry Levinson tells in the movie "Avalon." Both sides of my family arrived in Baltimore around 1900, during the great Jewish migration from eastern Europe. They lived for awhile in the tenements of east Baltimore where they began to build businesses, synagogues and social clubs.
During the 1920s, they moved northwest, to the neat row houses of Eutaw Place. In the 1940s, they went northwest again, to the single-family houses of Forest Park (in "Avalon," the move to "the suburbs;" Levinson and my mother both went to Forest Park High School). Twenty years later, they migrated northwest once again: my great-grandparents and grandparents to the high-rise apartments and country clubs of Park Heights; the younger generation to the suburban sub-division of Pikesville.
The move continues today: My cousins and their children have gone further northwest, to Owings Mills and Reisterstown. Further "away from Avalon," complains the grandfather in the movie.
Like its border cousins, St. Louis and Cincinnati, Baltimore is a bit schizophrenic. It's a slave city that fought for the preservation of the Union. Baltimore is occasionally "mid-Atlantic," just another stop on Amtrak's northeast corridor from Boston to Washington. At other moments, it's a Southern city, having more in common with Richmond than with Philadelphia.
Perhaps its split-personality was most evident during the 1960s. Baltimore was a Jim Crow town like Norfolk and Birmingham. It ended segregation with relative quiet (local business interests probably acted on motives other than righteous moral indignation), and then it burned in 1968 along with Northern cities like Detroit and Newark.
For most of this century, ethnic blue-collar whites (Poles, Lithuanians, Irish, Germans) lived in the south and east Baltimore of the port, the Sparrows Mill steelworks and the Dundalk factories. Restrictive housing covenants insured that genteel Roland Park and Guilford would remain upper-class Wasp and Catholic. Jews stayed on the west side of what is now the Jones Falls Expressway, every generation moving further northwest to bigger houses, and away from blacks.
I think it was Eldridge Cleaver who said that violence is as American as cherry pie. So too is flight from what are politely called "declining property values." At some point, the entrance of middle-class black families led to real-estate speculation, panic selling and ultimately white flight from many of the neighborhoods that my family used to call home. The dinner-table lines were probably always the same: "if you let the good ones in, you know who'll follow." "It's our neighborhood, not theirs." "You know what they're like." Etc. Always us versus them.
The irony, of course, is that blacks have been in Maryland far longer than Jews or Poles or Germans. The state was founded in the 1600s as a Catholic refuge from Protestant persecution. A funny juxtaposition: white religious freedom and black slavery.
Jews are puzzled once again by black anti-Semitism. Jewish liberals supported civil rights, sent money to the NAACP, and marched with Martin Luther King. But they drew lines too: at the anger of Malcolm X, at the violence of the Black Panthers, at the possibility of black neighbors.
Eutaw Place, where my grandmother grew up with a hundred cousins and relatives, is now black. Forest Park, the childhood home of my parents, has "turned" as well.
For a number of reasons, my parents gave up on Jewish Baltimore. When I was 7, we moved to St. Louis; six years later, we went to Chicago. When I was 18, I up and left for New York. After eight years there, my wife and I moved to the Detroit area.
This pattern of settlement, flight and resettlement has been repeated in each of these places. In St. Louis, Jews moved out to the western suburbs of Olivette and Chesterfield. In Chicago, the most racially divided city I've ever lived in, Jewish families left the South Shore and Lawndale for the Northside and the northern suburbs (in essence, they switched from the White Sox to the Cubs).
In New York, this history was repeated in the Bronx, in Brooklyn and in part of Manhattan. (An Italian colleague once told me that my people had fled while his people had stayed and this was the true lesson of Howard Beach and Bensonhurst). My best friend in college grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, and my wife's family is from Bridgeport, Connecticut. It's the same story in both towns.
But I sense that the Baltimore pattern has been repeated more closely in Detroit than any other area in which I've lived. In my old job, I used to send mail to area synagogues: there's one in Detroit; there are several in Oak Park and Southfield, and there are many in Bloomfield and Farmington Hills. My boss once explained the history on a map. He pointed to the Renaissance Center and silently moved his finger up Woodward Avenue, to the northwest. I've explored downtown Detroit a little since we moved here. The streets feel old and tired. Former Mayor Coleman Young's "people mover" seems particularly strange, like lipstick on a corpse. The energy is obviously gone.
My wife and I visited my grandparents in Baltimore recently. My ** grandfather's complaints are the same as ever: "The black city comptroller steals." I laugh and point out that after living in Chicago, I assume that all urban politicians do this, regardless of color. "The black mayor hired the incompetent black former Maryland basketball coach to work for the city, and by the way, isn't it interesting that the Terps did well last year with a white coach?" "Pimlico, our old shopping neighborhood, has turned. It's dirty and violent and drug-infested."
That night, lying in bed, I wondered if I knew right from wrong. Better to stay in a house that I love and to welcome my new black neighbors? Or to follow my synagogue, stores and loved ones to the northwest? Better to join history? Or to fight it?
Yes, every American group tries to move from a small, cramped life to a larger, more comfortable one. Yet, I couldn't help but think that people once lived in neighborhoods in which they could walk or ride a bike or take a bus to stores, schools, friends, movies and restaurants. They gave up on these places and now drive alone from home to office park to mall and back. We lament the death of urban and civic culture and the growth of suburban anomie. And we wonder about American decline.
That weekend, I revisited some of the Baltimore of my childhood. I think the city is crumbling at its edges. The downtown Enoch Pratt Library is shabby and unkempt. The wind howls across the upper deck of Memorial Stadium. Across the street, windows are broken across Eastern High School.
Late in the afternoon, I drove through Pimlico. Yes, the neighborhood is certainly black now. (My grandfather's euphemism, "turning," seems so strange and vague.) The Hilltop Diner, which inspired Barry Levinson's movie, is now a liquor store.
I made a left, went a few blocks and passed the gates of the synagogue cemetery where members of my family are buried. They're the only ones left in the old neighborhood. The others are gone, northwest.
Stephen Sagner is a writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan.