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When Baltimore burned

The Baltimore Sun

The former mayor climbed from the car and reached back 40 years. He remembered this corner, Broadway and Fayette Street, when it was on fire.

"It was completely engulfed," said Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, as he gestured to the site where a warehouse was torched by rioters. He had been mayor for barely four months when, on April 6, 1968, the city erupted in violence after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King.

Now 78, D'Alesandro held in his mottled hands a photograph of this place, showing the young mayor looking grim as fire hoses doused the smoldering ruins. When the smoke cleared after four days of rioting, six people had been killed, 700 injured, 1,000 businesses looted or burned and 5,800 people arrested.

The physical toll was enormous. But in the years that followed, the psychological damage hurt the city even more. People, D'Alesandro said, "became scared about Baltimore."

The riots created in the public imagination an urban wasteland of shattered storefronts and bombed-out buildings. Forces already in motion - middle-class flight, the departure of small businesses, the withdrawal of white families from city schools - accelerated.

"Imagine yourself as a merchant, saying, 'If this terrible thing happened, why won't it happen again?'" said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, the city's deputy housing commissioner in the 1970s. "For a lot of people, white and ultimately black, the suburbs looked pretty good."

The ripples would travel across decades: A family whose pharmacy was looted left for the suburbs, where their children made lives separate from the city. A community activist watched as the blight of vacant homes led to the scourge of drugs and crime. A man who went to an integrated high school in 1968 now sends his daughter to a nearly all-black school and wonders if the education is as good.

For civic leaders, the riots forced a sense of urgency to build a better city. Baltimore won federal money for a campaign to provide decent housing for the poor. Ground was broken on the Maryland Science Center to draw middle-class families back to the city, if only to visit. But the housing was still in deteriorating neighborhoods, and it was years before some middle-class families came back downtown.

Baltimore had begun losing residents in the 1950s, as the promise of bigger homes, greener lawns and safer streets - the American dream, available on the installment plan - drew thousands to the suburbs. But after the riots, the flight became a stampede. The city lost 13 percent of its population - 120,000 residents - in the decade between 1970 and 1980.

Those who left took with them their tax money and, in some cases, their jobs. Increasingly, they shopped and worked in the suburbs. From 1969 to 1980, the number of jobs in the city fell sharply, from 540,000 to 505,000.For the first time, Baltimore made the list of the nation's 10 poorest cities.

Those who stayed lived in hollowed-out neighborhoods where the drug trade took hold, replacing honest businesses. Washington at last took notice of the nation's shameful housing conditions, and Baltimore received millions in federal money to provide decent, affordable homes for the poor.

But jobs were still disappearing, and the schools were growing ever more segregated as white families moved away or sent their children to private or parochial schools. The system lost more than 50,000 students in the '70s, most of them white. Today, a black student in Baltimore has less chance of encountering a white student than in any other large system in the country.

"The riots punctuated and accelerated changes that may have taken place anyhow," said Howell Baum, a professor of urban studies at the University of Maryland. "They added their own unfortunate flavor to it, in that lots of folks felt beat up."

The riots alone cannot be blamed for the decline of the city, but they left a mark. Forty years later, Baltimore is still recovering.

'Just an inferno'

In the hours after the riots, a child of the city became a convert to the suburbs.

Sharon Singer grew up on North Avenue above her parents' pharmacy. She took ballet classes at the Peabody Institute and rode the bus to Orioles games at Memorial Stadium. She did her homework in the store and chatted with the customers.

She was 16 in 1968, a student in the Western High School "A program." The school's population was evenly split, black and white, but, Singer says, "We thought of ourselves as a family."

On Sunday morning, April 7, Singer and her mother went shopping and then picked up her sister at Baltimore Hebrew College. Singer had her learner's permit, and her mother let her drive the black Oldsmobile 98 home. They took the newly opened Jones Falls Expressway, getting off at North Avenue.

"There was just an inferno," Singer recalls. Riots that began on the east side had spread to the west. Buildings were on fire. Smoke filled the sky. The road was blocked. Singer maneuvered the Oldsmobile through side streets to reach the Esso gas station behind the pharmacy. Her father was standing there, waiting.

The family went to an aunt's house in Northwest Baltimore with only the clothes they were wearing. The next day, Monday, they returned to the store - to their home - and found it looted. Everything was taken, but they were hopeful.

"We thought maybe we could pick up the pieces," Singer said. But one day later, the building was burned. There was no going back. "We were there with them, and then all of a sudden, we weren't."

No study has determined the precise number of businesses that left the city after the riots, but experts estimate it was in the hundreds. They were the small businesses - bakeries, pharmacies, general stores - that sustained life in city neighborhoods.

Even at the time of the riots, some were aware of the long-term damage. On April 8, state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell III drove through the riot-stricken area and told The Sun: "Where are they going to get food tomorrow? Where are they going to get medicine? There's nothing left."

Many who could leave the city, did. The suburbs promised better schools, modern kitchens and less crime. And if that wasn't enough, the federal government pushed families toward the suburbs by making it easier to get loans in Catonsville than in Cherry Hill.

The practice of redlining - the Federal Housing Administration's refusal to guarantee loans in black or mixed neighborhoods - struck at the heart of the city. Banks denied mortgages in many city neighborhoods, pointing families instead to the suburbs.

Brodie, the former deputy housing commissioner, said the city fought the FHA: "We did everything we could as a city government to persuade them to make loans in Bolton Hill. They didn't want to do it. They had just written off chunks of the city."

Singer's family moved to Reisterstown. Her father got a job as a pharmacist at Korvette's. Her mother earned her associate's degree in accounting and went to work for insurance giant USF&G.; And when Singer married, she and her husband settled in the suburbs.

"I never went back," she said. "I never went back to the city after that - never had the desire to. It wasn't a conscious decision: 'Oh, I'm never stepping back in the city.' But my childhood was on North Avenue, and after that, it was a different life."

'It sent a message'

Lucille Gorham came face-to-face with the riots in a coin-operated laundry on Gay Street. She was holding her young daughter when a man threw a gasoline bomb through the plate-glass window.

Gorham said she and her child narrowly escaped the spreading flames, but in the following days, her neighborhood would bear the brunt of years of bottled-up anger and inequity. Gorham - a mother of eight from North Carolina who had come to Baltimore poor, and remained poor - could understand the rioters' anger. But she could never condone their destruction.

"It sent a message that a lot of things needed to be better," said Gorham, now 77. "But so many people didn't need to get hurt. So many homes didn't need to be burned."

In that laundry on Gay Street, Gorham would not have guessed that the job of rebuilding her neighborhood would fall in part to her. She was a single mother, divorced and later widowed, living with her children in a two-bedroom house off Caroline Street where the heat only worked in the living room.

But through her community activism, Gorham earned a job with Citizens for Fair Housing, eventually becoming director. She moved to a larger rowhouse on East Chase Street. And while she would never describe herself as anything but poor, her life took on a modicum of stability.

Representing her community, Gorham worked with city leaders who were harnessing federal housing money for Baltimore. In the 1970s, the city built 748 low-income units in the Gay Street corridor, part of a decade-long boom in which 3,900 new homes for the poor went up. The Gay Street housing was townhouses and garden-style apartments - decent, affordable rental homes that people could feel good about.

But in other aspects, good feelings were in short supply. As the city's economy changed, well-paying union jobs disappeared. Indeed, the city has never returned to its pre-riots employment level, hitting a low of 405,000 jobs in 2005, the last year for which data are available.

Drugs and crime ravaged many neighborhoods. Even amid the new housing, blight remained. Gorham said she was afraid to go out at night, fearful of the young men on her block.

"You lived with vacant houses. You lived with trash and debris," she said. "It opened the door to drug dealing. It made it convenient for drug dealers to come in the neighborhood, set up shop in schoolyards, alleys, vacant houses. The city didn't do anything."

The residents couldn't afford to keep up the houses, she says, and the city didn't take care of them, either. Streets weren't cleaned. Trash wasn't removed. Flowers and trees weren't planted.

Gorham watched as the homes she fought for - such as the 63-unit Harry Mills Terrace - were razed. "It hurt. It hurt," she said recently. "Harry Mills was, to the people who moved in there, it was like a gift from the Lord." More than 800 of the 3,900 units built in the '70s have been torn down.

Today Gorham's old neighborhood is still pockmarked with vacant houses. But for the first time since the '70s, major investment holds the potential for transformation. East Baltimore Development Inc. is spending $1.8 billion to build offices, research space and residences on an 88-acre site just north of Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Gorham herself was forced out of her home on Chase Street several years ago to make way for the EBDI project. Her old block is now completely boarded up, waiting for a promised revival.

With the help of EBDI, she bought a house in the Belair-Edison neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore, and three of her sons moved in with her. Her children's lives illustrate the challenges faced in overcoming persistent poverty. One son cuts grass and fixes cars. Another works in the grounds department of the city school system. A daughter is a seamstress.

Another, Gorham says proudly, has a white-collar job. Her employer? East Baltimore Development Inc.

Armed soldiers

Late one night during the riots, 16-year-old Terry White was walking across the Mondawmin Mall parking lot, returning home from his job at the Baltimore Country Club. The National Guard was using the mall lot as a staging area, but White didn't know that.

Three or four armed National Guard troops approached White and a friend, both African-Americans. The guardsmen asked them questions: Who are you? What are you doing? Where are you going? White was drinking a pint of milk, and a soldier took it and sniffed it.

White was allowed to return home, but he hasn't forgotten the resentment he felt that night. His neighborhood, now known as Coppin Heights, was largely untouched by the riots, but "there were armed soldiers on my street, and it felt like they were trying to confine me."

At the time, he was a junior at Forest Park High School, a school that he says was evenly split between white and black students. King's death and even the riots brought people together and made him realize that every white person was not against him, he said. Many, he learned, wanted change as he did.

After high school came four years in the Marines, followed by community college in Baltimore and a job at the Federal Reserve Bank. Now White is executive secretary to the Maryland Board of Architects. He still lives in the city - in Waverly, where he goes to the farmers' market on Saturdays and enjoys life in an integrated neighborhood.

"Baltimore is surviving," said White, now 56. But in one way, he thinks the city has regressed. His daughter Jamila, 17, is a senior at City College High School, and White is dismayed that it is not nearly as integrated as the school he attended 40 years ago.

City College is 89 percent black, mirroring the ratio in the city system as a whole. The system became majority black in 1960, but in 1968 the high schools were still fairly integrated. The slow slide toward the resegregation of city schools is a stain of the riots that has not faded.

"The fact of the matter is that the more culturally rich situations one is exposed to, one has to become more culturally rich himself," White said. "If schools today were integrated at the rate when I was in school, I think the quality of education would be better."

'We kept on moving'

Conventional wisdom holds that Mayor D'Alesandro was despondent after the riots, and that's why he decided to leave politics after serving only one term. Nonsense, says D'Alesandro, who paints a more nuanced picture of his political and personal calculations.

The young mayor had planned to run for governor in 1970. But the riots changed the political landscape. Republican Gov. Spiro Agnew, who called out the National Guard and earned a reputation for law and order, was picked to be Richard Nixon's running mate in the presidential election. In Maryland, that meant that House of Delegates Speaker Marvin Mandel - a Democrat - became acting governor. And D'Alesandro could not run against another Democrat.

Nor could he remain as mayor, he says, for simple financial reasons. He had five children who were entering their high school and college years, and his take-home pay as mayor was $696 every two weeks. "I had to make a living," he said. He went into private practice as a lawyer.

But he stayed in Baltimore. Over the last four decades, he has watched the city's fitful progress and painful setbacks. And he believes - despite the torments of drugs, crime and poverty - that the city is stronger.

"There's no city of comparable size in the nation that has done as much revitalization as we have," he said. "The riots pushed us to the one-yard line, but we held. We kept on moving."

The corner where D'Alesandro saw the warehouse burn is now a hive of activity. Construction workers are busy building a new $10 million facility that will house the families and children who come to the Johns Hopkins Hospital Kimmel Cancer Center seeking treatment.

It is not the only place you can find hope in Baltimore, said D'Alesandro, who emerged from the darkest of nights with faith in a city's ability to heal.

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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