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Dan Rodricks Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

Gil Sandler was Baltimore's raconteur and constant worrier

Those who had private audiences with Gilbert Sandler often heard him express opinions about Baltimore that rarely appeared in the stories he wrote in the old Evening Sun or in the tales he told on the radio. If you had the pleasure of a Sandler kibitz — at Attman’s delicatessen, Cafe Hon or the Sons of Italy lodge — you always learned something, always laughed, and almost always heard Gil express frustration about the progress of the city he loved.

As his daughter, Judy, noted at Gil’s funeral Friday morning, her father worried all the time. “It was like a hobby to him,” she said. He worried about his three children at each stage of their lives, and he worried about Baltimore, his hometown, especially after the riots of 1968 and the acceleration of white flight.

Gil wrote “Baltimore Glimpses” for the editorial page of The Evening Sun. They were vivid remembrances of things past — the downtown department stores, the streetcars, the things people did on Saturday night before every household had a television set, the unusual merchants, politicians and neighborhood characters who made Baltimore quirky.

But Gil’s “Glimpses” were not merely nostalgic; they frequently offered historical context to what was happening in the city at the time he wrote them. For instance, when the law firm of Piper & Marbury moved from downtown to Baltimore County, Gil acknowledged that renowned companies preferred to construct their own headquarters; he described the long history of that. But, being such a champion of city life, Gil could not resist finishing the Piper piece with this: “Some businesses that move out of downtown claim it's cheaper to do business in the county. But downtown is part of the human churn, where people and street talk and action come together. How can you put a price on that?”

If he gave away personal feelings about what was happening to Baltimore in the 1980s and 1990s, when the city lost thousands of residents, that was how Gil did it, with mildly critical comments in “Glimpses.”

But he was a lot more opinionated over lunch. He spoke bluntly about the problems of the city — the long grind of generational poverty, the briar patch of race and class, and Baltimore’s loss of political clout as population and power shifted to the suburbs. He was also a tough and honest evaluator of the city’s political and business leaders.

Stories, like those that Gil told so well for so long, form and shape a society, or a city. “Gil understood that intuitively,” said Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg of Beth Am Synagogue in Reservoir Hill. “But he also acknowledged that there were multiple Baltimores, and that whites had benefited too often at the expense of African-Americans.” Gil spoke frequently about how structural racism had shaped Baltimore and its suburbs. “He would opine,” Burg said, “about so-called suburban paradise where, in his estimation, people erected picket fences mostly to hide behind them. ‘In Baltimore,’ he said, ‘we sit on the stoop.’ ”

In private, Gil could be heard to say, “No good story ever came from the county.” He considered suburban life culturally poor, wholly reliant on the automobile, a place of limited opportunity for the human interactions he craved and relished. At least one time, he expressed this sentiment on radio. “And to hear Gil tell it,” Burg said, “the entire population of Arbutus rose up and came after him with pitchforks. What was Gil’s response? ‘Where’s the Symphony of Greater Arbutus?’ ”

Gil wrote books about bygone Baltimore, particularly the Jewish experience. But there, as in all things, he resisted sentimentality. “When there was an exhibition about the Jewish community’s blossoming in Baltimore County, Gil thought the tone was, well, a little too celebratory,” Burg recalled. “Jewish thriving in the suburbs, for him, meant the Jewish community had abandoned the city. I think that’s why he loved Beth Am so much.”

Gil was a founding member of Beth Am, a congregation that bought its Eutaw Place synagogue after another congregation decided to leave the inner city. That was in the mid-1970s, a few years after the riots. It was a foundational principle of Beth Am to “remain in Baltimore City and to be a vital and stabilizing force in its Reservoir Hill neighborhood.” Gil became a leader of the congregation, and he always spoke of Beth Am with deep affection and reverence.

Thirty years ago, at age 65, he went to work for the Abell Foundation, hoping to help affect public policy and to support nonprofits that make life better for more Baltimoreans. He really was a champion of the city, and he constantly worried about it, right to the end of his long life on Wednesday. His commitment was inspiring.

“To Gil,” said Bob Embry, the Abell Foundation president, “Baltimore was to know it, to defend it, to improve it, and I think that should be a model for all of us.”

drodricks@baltsun.com

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