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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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What's most remarkable about this history--aside from its comparative obscurity--is how African-American civil rights leaders regarded blockbusting. Civil rights leaders of the day mainly regarded any movement of blacks into prevailing white neighborhoods as an unalloyed good, and apparently considered the economic fleecing they endured as just a cost of progress.

"We don't go for half-compromises," the NAACP's Juanita Mitchell said in a 1961 meeting when confronted by concerns, expressed by Sidney Hollander Jr. of the integrationist Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc., that Baltimore might become a "black city" with white suburbs. That some black leaders--Juanita's son, Clarence Mitchell III, and The Afro-American Newspaper publisher Carl Murphy, among the more prominent examples--also profited from these practices possibly aided their tolerance for the practice, though Pietila doesn't dwell on this.

Instead, he tells of Morris Goldseker's changing fortunes, as his 1950s reputation as the purveyor of the best homes blacks could get gave way, in the late 1960s, into infamy and "Goldsucker" taunts. His downfall was engineered by a group called Activists, Inc., which with support from the Jesuits, followed the Saul Alinsky model of research and agitation. After the 1968 riots, Activist, Inc. followed Goldseker's financing to major Maryland banks and analyzed his (and other blockbusters') business practices.

Goldseker, by his own accounting, "only" netted about 19 percent profit on each house he sold--a figure that appeared unscandalous only in light of the claims by Activist, Inc. that Goldseker made 85 percent profit. Like the predatory lenders who followed him, Goldseker insisted that he was a fair dealer, providing a unique service to a difficult market that would not be otherwise served. Secretly, he also put the screws to Activist, Inc.'s chief witness against him in a civil suit, forcing the suit's withdrawal and cementing a business model that still thrives today in Baltimore and across the land.

One of the book's strengths is the flat and matter-of-fact way it describes the careers of such legendary political figures as Jack Pollack, Tom Smith, Little Willie Adams, and, in the county, Spiro Agnew and Dale Anderson. All of these men were kingmakers whose criminal careers blended seamlessly into their political work. Smith, an illiterate numbers runner, would reportedly call the Western District police station, and when an officer picked up the phone would announce himself, "Demparty."

Adams, another numbers runner who parlayed his vigorish into a real-estate empire that included bars and nightclubs and the region's black beach, had little trouble with authority until he and his wife moved into a white neighborhood. Then, suddenly, his criminal business enterprise became an issue. After those legal ordeals, Pietila writes, Adams went legit.

"I'm glad that Willie is still alive," Pietila says. "I hope that when he dies, he will be seen as more than a numbers runner. When I joined The Sun, whenever one wrote about Little Willie, high in the story was a requisite reference to his numbers career."

According to Pietila, the legal transgressions of other, whiter political players were not always so faithfully noted. "Willie was never convicted," he says. "Nothing wrong with mentioning all this, but in the end he did become different and bigger. I refer to him as the city's first important African-American businessman."

Pollack was a white bootlegger and thug who muscled in on money and power, then kept it with rigged elections. The Sun covered Pollack's political exploits, but left his criminal past buried. "There is a copy of his police record in The Sun library," Pietila says. "And it says confidential, do not circulate, something like this. I have a footnote on this."

That courtesy aside, "The Sun ran this campaign against Pollack," Pietila continues. "And I think the interesting thing now about Pollack is how is the Jewish community going to react [to the book]? How is Pollack seen today?"

Pollack's patronage gave many Baltimore Jews their ticket to the middle class, Pietila says. "And I'm saying that this is interesting because, when he was alive, the organized Jewish community--meaning the Baltimore Jewish Council--was very critical of him. They did not deal with him--turned to him for aid once, and he did not deliver."

In Baltimore County, frank racism was tied directly to the corruption that dominated politics there, Pietila writes. But he does not make the same connection in describing the city's corrupt political history--or, for that matter, its corrupt present.

What makes this book such a grand and interesting read--the dish on exalted philanthropists, the off-hand descriptions of bribery and numbers rackets--is also its weakness. In the end, the cynical and racist fear mongering of blockbusters such as Goldseker and Manning-Shaw was not the principle driver of blacks toward stable, working-class white neighborhoods. As Power explained in his 1983 article, between 1951 and 1971, 75,000 Baltimoreans (at least 80 percent of whom were black) were displaced by government redevelopment projects, creating a flood of people we might today call refugees. Pietila hints at the enormity of this government policy (noting, for example, that from 1950-'53 more black residences were razed than built), but he does not focus on this. The blockbusters took great advantage of a crisis, but the real force creating those refugees was the "Black Removal" policies promulgated by government officials--some of them the same colorful characters Pietila profiles.

Connecting those odious policies directly to the region's political culture of graft and greed would have closed the loop on the century of racist policy, illuminating the ongoing mistrust that some in the black community still voice about big redevelopment projects, and finally drawing some bright causal lines just where they need to go.

Alas, Pietila leaves that important work for a different book. "Now, I'm not gonna do it," Pietila says, "but, I have in my office a couple of boxes of documents about the Thompson trial [Thompson v. HUD, the city's 1995 public housing desegregation case]. So the material is there. Somebody could just sit down and do it."

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