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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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Anyone curious about why Baltimore staggers under 20,000 or so abandoned and collapsing houses should give Pietila's book a careful read. The city's three-tiered racial housing system (The Sun maintained its classified-ad designations--Colored, "Gentiles," or Jewish--through the early '60s despite many requests by readers and activists) contributed to a self-reinforcing panic and pattern of disinvestment. The roots of the city's decline can credibly be traced to city officials' reaction to Hawkins' McCulloh Street deal.

Hawkins, a prominent lawyer and civil rights leader, went on to defeat a series of first-in-the-nation segregation ordinances that his purchase inspired. The Baltimore laws were copied by cities throughout the South, struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, and largely forgotten amid the century's upheavals. Pietila acknowledges a debt to Garrett Power, professor emeritus of law at the University of Maryland School of Law, whose 1983 Maryland Law Review article, "Apartheid Baltimore Style: The Residential Segregation Ordinances of 1910-1913," introduced him to his adopted city's hidden history.

Power's account actually got the initial transaction wrong, substituting George W.F. McMechen, Hawkins' law partner and tenant, as the initial purchaser of 1834 McCulloh Street. But Power's earlier analysis takes into account history's most powerful actors--the local, state, and federal government policies that turned tens of thousands of black Baltimoreans into virtual refugees. Pietila's book glosses over much of this, as well as the subsequent federal-housing policies that concentrated poor people--African-Americans especially--in ill-maintained, often expensive housing.

"I had to decide early on what the scope of the book was," Pietila says. "And I, with a few exceptions, decided to stay away from the public-housing component, not because it is not interesting but because it is so incredibly complex and I'm gonna lose all the readers."

One exception to this is Pietila's republishing of a map drawn up by federal employees of the Home Owners Loan Corporation--HOLC for short--a New Deal agency widely credited with saving millions from foreclosure in the 1930s. Much more effectively than today's anti-foreclosure programs, the HOLC bailed out struggling homeowners who had lost jobs and income. But it also worked with banks to assess risk, and its map declared any neighborhood with older houses, foreign-born residents or--especially--Jews and African-Americans as risky.

Those deemed too risky for bank loans were left at the mercy of high-interest private lenders and land speculators. Thus did the federal government policy during the Great Depression set the table for the white exodus and riots that would follow.

When World War II drew thousands of workers--black and white alike--into Baltimore, the housing shortage created both squalor and lucrative opportunities for real-estate speculators. By far the most lucrative was blockbusting, and Pietila recounts the doings of a cartel known as "the 40 Thieves," the members of which plotted in Bickford's, a greasy spoon near City Hall. There was Victor Posner, who went onto become a corporate raider in the 1980s. There was Herbert Kaufman, who gambled away his fortune (and was not, apparently, related to the late socialist firebrand A. Robert Kaufman, Pietila says).

The city's first black-white business partnership, between Manuel Bernstein, a convicted fraudster, and Warren S. Shaw, who moved here from California to drive a bus, was a sensation in its day. The flamboyant company, dubbed Manning-Shaw, took blockbusting tactics to a new, and more public level, posting sold signs on every new listing long before it sold, its agents misrepresenting themselves as working for more reputable companies. The African-American Shaw fancied himself a civil-rights activist, arriving at protests in his yellow Cadillac convertible.

The company specialized in breaking upscale white neighborhoods, Pietila writes. Its most sensational attempt was Ashburton, where in 1958 it installed a janitor named Joseph Carter, his wife Audrey, and their eight children at 3800 Grantley Road, a 2,000-square-foot stucco colonial on a quarter-acre lot.

Carter earned $54 a week but supposedly paid $37 of it to rent--or buy; neither he nor Bernstein could offer authorities a credible explanation--the house. He also supposedly paid $20 more for another one. His children had no food; the house was unheated. Mrs. Carter seemed to have no idea how to use the electric washing machine in the basement; she washed clothes in the sink and dried them in the oven, according to Pietila, who relied on more than 700 pages of documents he unearthed about the case.

For using Carter fraudulently, the Real Estate Commission suspended Bernstein and Shaw's real-estate licenses for three months. "The pair felt wronged," Pietila writes. They took their appeal all the way to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear it. "Religiously or ethically, we didn't do anything wrong," Bernstein said. "We advocated the cause of Black people."

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