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East Enders

A Lewis Museum photography exhibition captures Baltimore's working-class eastside neighborhoods over the years in all their vibrant diversity

Ellis Marsalis III's "Outlasting Stare."

By Bret McCabe | Posted 6/17/2009

East Side Stories: Portrait of a Baltimore Neighborhood Then and Now

Through July 26 at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.

Ellis Marsalis III hosts a talk and book signing June 25 in the East Side Stories gallery.

The image adorning the cover of this issue of City Paper borders on cliché. A young man stands at an open fire hydrant, his arms extended out and over his head, his silhouette but a shadow behind the white gush of water exploring from the spigot. Behind him, other young men look on, and a young man on a bike stops and looks, his face hidden in the water's spray. The water comes out of the hydrant at such a force that even the rowhouses in the background are partially obscured.

You've probably seen something very much like this image before in movies and other photos: young people playing in an open fire hydrant to escape the summer heat of the inner city. The photo, titled "Street Shower," comes from lensman Ken Royster (an erstwhile City Paper contributor), one of the four photographers spotlighted in East Side Stories: Portrait of a Baltimore Neighborhood Then and Now currently on view at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture; Royster is joined by Elizabeth Barbush, Michela Caudill, and Ellis Marsalis III. All four exhibit a riff on street photography here, catching moments and people in and around various East Baltimore neighborhoods, from Middle East to Belair-Edison to the growing Latino community in Upper Fells Point. And if East Side Stories merely collected those images into an exhibition, the show--and "Street Shower"--would feel like any other collection of urban street photography: change the city and the photographers and you could find similar views of Brooklyn, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Trenton--any American city where its 20th-century, working-class economic base has been depressed in the past 50 years.

East Side Stories, though, doesn't merely offer a portrait of East Baltimore now. Instead, the curatorial staff put these four photographers' works into a photographic timeline that stretches to the early part of the 20th century, allowing images to tell a story of this part of town. It's an organizing structure that lends the four photographers' images a quiet resonance, placing them in an ongoing effort to document the part of town that welcomed many people as they arrived in Baltimore over the years.

In a way, Stories argues for considering the eastside as a melting pot constantly in flux: it's a sentiment expressed right there in the plural of "story" in the title. The history of this part of town is polyphonous, and Stories opens with wide-angle historical overview of East Baltimore, with wall text that informs visitors about its inhabitants over the years. In 1835, for instance, a Baltimore city directory listed that nearly four in 10 African-American residents lived in alley dwellings, and that by the mid-19th century the reorganization of African-Americans in East Baltimore coincided with the arrival of various immigrant populations, the first wave including people from Germany, Ireland, Italy, Bohemia, various Slavic countries, and Poland, as well as European Jews. (A second wave in the early 20th century witnessed the arrival of Lithuanians, Russians, Greeks, Hungarians, and Ukrainians.) At both times, East Baltimore's economic base relied on maritime industries and building trades, meaning working-class whites and blacks lived in the same areas and competed for the same jobs.

The exhibition is light on wall text, though, as Stories wisely lets its images do the heavy lifting. Archival images offer casual shots of East Baltimore streets, houses, and people over the years--a circa 1950 shot called "A Day in a East Baltimore Alley Street" shows one of those narrow byways not looking too different from how it might today. The cars in the foreground and background are different, sure, but not the method of parking with one set of tires on the street and another up on the curb. And the mix of old and young faces milling about on the narrow sidewalks or playing in the street is familiar enough to have been taken last week.

These archival shots come from a variety of sources--The Baltimore Sun archives, the Enoch Pratt Free Library, the University of Maryland Baltimore County Albin L. Kuhn Special Collections, and some great work from the Afro American archives--and offer some of best images here, if only to see how much and how little East Baltimore has changed over time. "1600 Latrobe Avenue," a circa 1940 photo from the Afro-American archives, captures a young African-American girl holding an American flag and standing on a Latrobe Avenue where every rowhouse has flowers in window boxes and a colorful bench next to the front stoop steps. The 1979 "East Baltimore" by Joan Clark Netherwood--who has a number of great shots included here--depicts a white and black gathering of people standing and sitting in front of a white block of rowhouses, a shot of friends and neighbors enjoying the day.

One of the more interesting archival documents is an approximately 20-minute short black-and-white film from 1953, directed by Selma Weisenborn and John Barnes and titled "The Baltimore Plan," a dramatization of the 1950s "Baltimore Plan for Housing Law Enforcement," a city effort to protect vulnerable residents from predatory housing practices and enforce minimum standards of habitability. According to this short film, during the 1950s Baltimore's then-mayor Tommy D'Alessandro started the first housing court in the country to enforce housing standards as a legal right. In the film's dramatized situations--that admittedly feel like 1950s educational shorts--negligent landlords could be fined $50 for failing to keep their properties up to codes, and the housing court would waive the fine if landlord would put that money toward fixing whatever needed to be improved; in a few scenes, the court solicits help from the neighborhood to clear alleyways, tidy up green spaces, etc.--the sort of community-based sustainable thinking that's been circulating in the past decade for empowering neglected neighborhoods or the Afro's clean block campaign, which stared in the 1930s and continues today, now known as the Clean-Green Block competition after officially partnering with Baltimore City in 2008.

These historical street scenes and peeks into a neighborhood life provide a much needed historical context for the work of Barbush, Caudill, Marsalis, and Royster, whose collected work zooms in on specific neighborhoods following the exhibition's introductory photos. Royster's images are paired with Barbush's visual and audio portraits--some of the photos have audio features, which you can listen to by dialing a provided phone number and entering the corresponding code--and focus on Middle East, a part of town that's still going through dramatic changes that Barbush captures in her excoriating 2008 photo "View of Hopkins." It's an image of a square city block cleared of homes and now with grass growing over it, a line of rowhouses on the far side resting in the imposing shadow of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institution right behind it.

Where Royster and Barbush inject a socioeconomic element into their photos, Ellis and Caudill spotlight the human factor. Caudill spent time in East Baltimore's burgeoning Latino community, and many of her photos here are portraits of the men and women who frequent a Dominican beauty salon.

Marsalis, on the other hand, started taking photos of his East Baltimore neighborhood shortly after moving to Baltimore in 1990, and his gift is for capturing candid moments with a poetic eye. In "Outlasting Stare," a young boy peeks out of a door, only the top of his head and eyes visible, looking at something off to the right. It's not clear whether he's suspicious or curious, fleeing or leaving, and the tension of this instant is heightened by some of Marsalis' other images, such as of a streetlight post turned into a makeshift shrine to somebody no longer here.

This exhibit offers a wealth of such poignant moments, which come not from single photos but how they work together to sculpt a larger idea. East Side Stories contains more than 100 items and you quickly find yourself searching for the candid moments and little details that don't just show you how East Baltimore looked, but clues into who the people were who lived here, how they lived their lives, and what mattered to them.

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Tags: Reginald F. Lewis Museum, Ken Royster, Photography

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