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Mobtown Beat

Get on the Bus

A new initiative attempts to reconnect Baltimore Jews with their roots around Druid Hill Park

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Barry Kessler hopes to get Jews who left Druid Hill Park behind to care about it again.

By Andrea Appleton | Posted 6/2/2010

On a recent Sunday, for the first time in 50 years, Pauline Chapin is visiting the neighborhood where she grew up. She stands in Park Heights, at the corner of Springhill and Park Heights avenues, and points. "I lived down there," she says, "in that row of four houses, the second from the end."

Chapin now lives in Upper Park Heights, just a few miles north. But despite their physical proximity and the avenue from which each takes its name, the two neighborhoods are worlds apart. The former is middle class and largely Jewish, home to well-kept lawns and luxury condos. The latter is primarily African-American and one of the city's most crime-ridden areas, with hundreds of boarded-up houses.

It was a bus tour that finally brought Chapin--and about 40 others who grew up in the formerly Jewish neighborhoods surrounding Druid Hill Park--home. Entitled "Druid Hill Park: Nostalgia and Beyond," and sponsored by the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network (BJEN), the tour is part of a new effort to reconnect Baltimore's Jewish community with a park that was once central to it.

Baltimore's Jewish immigrants first began to move from their early settlements in East Baltimore to neighborhoods near the park in the 1880s, after achieving a level of prosperity. Over the decades, they built synagogues, schools, and numerous homes. By the 1920s, thousands of Jews lived near the 746-acre park and used it extensively. The era has been immortalized in several of Barry Levinson's movies, including Avalon and Liberty Heights, and was recently chronicled in a booklet called Druid Hill Park--Jewish Baltimore's Green Oasis 1920-1960, by Barry Kessler, former Jewish Museum of Maryland curator.

Then, after just a generation, they were gone. As African-Americans began to move in and racial tensions in the city escalated, Jews relocated to parts north and west: Upper Park Heights, Pikesville, Randallstown. And, like Pauline Chapin, many never set foot in the Druid Hill area again.

The reason a number of them recently have is due to an unusual undertaking called the Druid Hill Park Project, spearheaded by Kessler, Rabbi Nina Cardin of the BJEN, and Peter Harnik, a city parks expert at the Trust for Public Land. It began with a coincidence. "A man and his wife died without heirs and left some money that my brother was the executor for," Harnik says. The only instructions the couple left were that the money should go to programs related to the Jewish community. Harnik did some research and discovered that four cities--Cleveland, Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore--have prominent parks which have seen better days, all in formerly Jewish communities. Harnik's idea was to leverage that history to build a new base of support for each park. The hope is that by reconnecting Jews with their heritage, they will become park restoration advocates.

Early last year, Harnik contacted BJEN, which agreed to act as fiscal sponsor for the Baltimore project, and Kessler, who coincidentally had put together an extensive exhibit on the city's parks for the Peale Museum in the late 1980s. Baltimore's share of the bequest--just $50,000--has thus far gone toward publishing Kessler's booklet and for a bit of overhead for the bus tour.

"I realized that the people who have the greatest attachment to Druid Hill Park, because they grew up around it, are in many cases stuck in the myth that you can't go back there because of the danger," says Kessler, who thought up the tour. "I came up with the idea of, Let's meet people where they are."

The procession onto the luxury bus at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in Pikesville is slowed by canes and wheelchairs, but as the tour rolls into the city, the mood is exuberant. "Dr. Kane lived there!" someone says, as the bus turns from North Avenue up Eutaw Place, which Kessler calls "the Park Avenue, the Champs Élysée, the Unter den Linden" of Baltimore's Jewish community. "That was Manheimer's drug store where we would go for sno-balls," calls out another.

And so it goes, with Kessler's history talk punctuated by memories from the people who had lived it: of kosher butchers and Hebrew bookstores, bike rental shops and the holiday shpatsir, or stroll in the park. Doris Bernhardt shares her collection of early-20th-century postcards of Druid Hill, and Gloria Hack recalls hearing the roar of lions from the park zoo through her open windows in the summertime. But not all the memories are golden.

Len Adler, who grew up in Auchentoroly Terrace, hasn't been back since the early 1960s. He turns to a reporter as the bus winds through Druid Hill Park. "When I was a little boy, my dad would take me to the white swimming pool," he says, nodding out the window. (Until 1956, the park had separate swimming pools for blacks and whites.) "And I said, 'Dad, how come the blacks can't swim here?' And he said, 'Because a lot of them have syphilis.' That's what he was taught."

The segregation rules at the park did not go unchallenged. In 1948, for instance, eight tennis players--four black and four white, with Jews among them--engaged in an interracial protest match. Five hundred spectators came to watch, and all the players were arrested. But before long, even such solidarity-minded Jews were gone.

The ethnic succession was accompanied by a downturn into poverty, visible from the bus in the form of boarded-up buildings. But the tour is geared to highlight the positive. It passes a row of rehabbed homes on Linden Avenue, the result of a "buy-a-block" program founded by Adam Meister, a 33-year-old Jewish community activist who is on the tour. A representative from Parks and People comes to the mic to describe plans for refurbishing the overgrown section of Druid Hill across from Shaarei Tfiloh, the synagogue known as "the Shul on the Park." And Stuart Macklin, who grew up in Park Heights and volunteers with the non-profit Park Heights Renaissance, presents the organization's glowing plans. They include installing a large supermarket, starting education and job-training programs, and razing acres of buildings for new development.

But for some on the tour, such signs of progress won't be enough to bring them back. As one elderly man puts it, "It's a gorgeous park, but we're afraid to go. Until something can be done--not 'Sixteen people killed today in Druid Hill Park'--we won't go."

Current residents try to counteract such impressions. "I think the image of [the park] as unsafe is a historical image and not a current one," Reservoir Hill resident Paul Smith says. "If you come past the reservoir today, you see all kinds of people--young and old, different ethnic groups."

Such dialogue is part of the project's goal, Kessler says. He hopes to conduct more tours. If the waiting list for the first is any indication, he will have takers. And though the project may not inspire any Jews to resettle in their old neighborhoods, its organizers are optimistic that something besides nostalgia will come of it. What that might be is another question. "We're still in the exploration phase," Kessler says.

"This is unprecedented," Harnik says. "It's an experiment." But he points to the story of Forest Park, in St. Louis, Mo. In the 1980s, the large park was "rundown and dangerous," according to Harnik. Then, park advocates started gathering stories, on video, from people who had grown up around the park. "It was very emotional," Harnik says. "Some were crying on camera." The videos were disseminated, and the public outpouring of support helped raise nearly $100 million for restoration. Just last month, the city's mayor referred to Forest Park as "the crown jewel" of St. Louis.

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