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Chopping Blocks

Former Sun reporter Antero Pietila explores a century of Baltimore's racist real-estate deals and developments

Jefferson Jackson Steele
1834 McCulloh St.
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Antero Pietila
A 1937 map from the Federal Home Owners Loan Corporation marking black and Jewish neighborhoods as risky investments. View a larger version.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 3/17/2010

Antero Pietila talks about Not in My Neighborhood

March 25 at the Enoch Pratt Free Library's Poe Room at 6:30 p.m.

For more information visit prattlibrary.org.
Watch a video: Antero Pietila talks about Not In My Neighborhood

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It started with a routine real-estate transaction. Few people noticed when Attorney W. Ashbie Hawkins bought the rowhouse at 1834 McCulloh St. on a rainy June Thursday in 1910, but three weeks later, Hawkins was big news. As The Baltimore Sun reported in a front-page story, Hawkins was black.

The Sun's headline: NEGRO INVASION.

Hawkins' purchase, and the reaction that followed, set off the chain of events that cemented Baltimore's neighborhood segregation--by class, race, and religion--for the next century, according to Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City (Ivan R. Dee). The book, former Sun reporter Antero Pietila's first, was 10 years in the making, and it is packed with unflattering stories about such Baltimore icons as Joseph Meyerhoff (who wouldn't sell to Jews in his Roland Park development), James Rouse (before he was an integrationist, he went along to get along with prevailing racist real-estate rules), and Morris Goldseker (who amassed the $11 million fortune bequeathed to his eponymous foundation as a notorious blockbuster whose rent-to-own contracts bankrupted the African-Americans to which he sold).

But Pietila did not set out to explode myths about the city's philanthropists and cultural heroes. He began with longstanding questions. "The questions related to the physical formation of the city," he says over lunch. "One of the questions that is always asked is, 'How come Bolton Hill is white?'"

A native of Finland, Pietila (pronounced pee-ET-il-ah) was stunned by the diversity he discovered in mid-'60s New York. "There were no blacks in Finland," he says, "and only 1,500 Jews." Settling into an old Finnish steam bath in Harlem, he was surprised to find it operated by a Jamaican man. "That got me thinking about neighborhood transitions," he says in his careful, accented tenor between bites of Indian buffet.

As in his book, Pietila's tone is carefully nonjudgmental, piling fact upon fact with only a thin mortar of almost apologetic analysis. He comes by this understated style honestly--it is the product of a 35-year newspaper career. Pietila joined The Sun in 1969, soon after riots destroyed several of the city's business districts. In the 1980s, he reported from the Soviet Union, Afghanistan, and South Africa before returning to Baltimore to join the editorial board. He remained a reporter even in his final years at the paper, when he served as the only editorial writer who routinely hit the streets to interview people. Pietila never burned his contacts, and so they were willing to open their memories and files when he left the paper in 2004.

Many of the things they told Pietila had not been discussed openly for 40 or 50 years--if ever. He likens Baltimore's feeble understanding of its racial past to a case of mass amnesia. "One of the problems with a book like this is," Pietila says, "it's so new to everybody, people will say, 'Can this be true?'"

The meat of the book is a nuanced analysis of "blockbusting"--the realtors' practice of "breaking" an all-white neighborhood by planting a paid black tenant to act as a "new homeowner," scaring the remaining whites into selling their homes for below market value, and then selling those homes for above market value to African-Americans--usually at usurious terms. This form of racial economic judo turned white working-class neighborhoods all-black in just a few years, enriched a small band of real-estate professionals, and left the new residents saddled with high debts and sub-standard housing they could not hope to maintain.

"I talk about the changing financing pattern that administers blockbusting, which I interpret as not only a racial instrument, but also as an instrument for the wholesale dumping of substandard housing after World War II," Pietila says, adding layers of nuance to a phenomenon that, though little discussed today, is often remembered in stark black-and-white terms.

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