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Charmed Life

Flight Fighters

Sam Holden

By Charles Cohen | Posted 12/4/2002

Some revolutionaries attract a ton of attention and make a lot of noise when they push their causes. Others initiate change through quieter tactics, practiced in the course of their daily lives.

Sidney Hollander (pictured, at left, with son David) is an example of the latter kind of revolutionary. At 88, he has accepted the role of the wise elder of Northwest Baltimore's Windsor Hills neighborhood. It is a title he would never select for himself, but his neighbors in this surprisingly picturesque spot situated on a cliff overlooking Leakin Park speak with reverence of the man who is partially responsible for making the neighborhood the racially diverse, welcoming community that it is. The residents of Windsor Hills--most notably Hollander--were some of the first in the city to combat discriminatory real-estate practices that swept Baltimore in the 1950s and '60s.

During the 1950s, it was a very simple act--the act of staying put in the midst of turmoil--that contributed to Hollander's reputation as an anchor of the neighborhood. At the time, the now-illegal practice of "blockbusting" had hit Windsor Hills, just as it had other predominantly white city neighborhoods: As African-Americans moved into traditionally white areas, real-estate agents intentionally created panic by scaring white homeowners into believing that changing neighborhood demographics would reduce the values of their homes. Real-estate speculators convinced many owners to sell their homes at well below market value, then resold the houses to African-Americans at inflated prices. The result was a stoked real-estate market: African-Americans bought into the city neighborhoods and white families headed for the suburbs. (More than 40 years later, flight from the city continues--although those moving to the 'burbs these days are of all races and backgrounds, and crime, floundering city schools, and crumbling infrastructure are to blame for the exodus.)

Hollander not only stayed put during the white flight--he also took steps to curb blockbusting and other unfair housing practices. Hollander saw the value of living in a racially mixed neighborhood, and he rallied his neighbors to stick around when all of their friends were fleeing the area.

"He's a man, in my view, who saw what was wrong and was determined to correct it," says Martin Dyer, an African-American who has lived in Windsor Hills since 1962. "He lived in a community that didn't support what he wanted, and, in fact, the initial reaction was distinctly negative."

On a recent Saturday, Hollander, who now lives in the Roland Park Place retirement community in North Baltimore, went back to his son's Windsor Hills home to talk about his decision to help his neighbors keep control of the neighborhood's destiny.

Pointing out the the ski-lodge view from a window that frames the Gwynns Falls Valley--a veritable wilderness within city limits--Hollander says staying in Windsor Hills was a choice he made to keep his community vibrant and accepting.

In the '50s, Windsor Hills, originally established as an exclusive summer retreat for wealthy gentiles, had begun to be settled by Jewish professors, businessmen, and philanthropists. The neighborhood became a bastion of liberalism and progressive thinkers. Frank Guttmacher, a staunch advocate of Planned Parenthood, made his home there, as did Judge Joseph Ulman, who worked to reform the city's criminal-justice system. Hollander's own father, Sidney Hollander Sr., who confronted discriminatory practices in hotels and theaters, lived there, too.

In 1954, Baltimore's public schools were desegregated, and, as a result, many of the city's African-American residents wanted to move to better neighborhoods with good schools. The folks of Windsor Hills were afraid that, like the nearby neighborhood of Forest Park, their neighborhood would be infiltrated by black families. Hollander says that many white people felt that they had no choice but to leave. He recalls two neighbors lamenting the fact that they felt pressured to sell the homes they had lived in for years.

"I remember saying they are caught in this grip of this phenomenon," he says. "Nobody said, 'You don't have to move. You can stay right where you are,' because that was considered impossible." When the first African-American, a Frederick Douglass High School English teacher, moved into Windsor Hills, Hollander met with neighbors to persuade them not to flee. Many left despite his pleading, but those who stayed worked at making Windsor Hills a healthy, tolerant, and integrated community.

Hollander and other residents soon realized that in order to remain a viable neighborhood, Windsor Hills would have to not only accept African-Americans but encourage new white homebuyers to move to the area as well. The residents, with Hollander at the helm, went to work recruiting new homeowners of various races, and the neighborhood association even established a fund to advertise homes for sale to desirable buyers. Hollander notes that at first Windsor Hills community leaders had to reassure worried African-American residents that they weren't going to be pushed out in favor of whites. "This wasn't a matter of prejudice," he says. "It was a matter of integration." Eventually, the African-American residents of Windsor Hills came around to Hollander's philosophy, and many contributed to the racial-integration fund.

Creating a racially diverse Windsor Hills was only a small part of the battle Hollander and his neighbors faced: They realized that as long as the city allowed the discriminatory practice of blockbusting to continue, no neighborhood in the city could remain stable. It would only be a matter of time before unethical real-estate speculators swooped in to prey on people's insecurities again.

"We realized that no matter how much we wanted stable, integrated neighborhoods, the limited housing opportunity for blacks put undue pressure on every neighborhood that did not enter the conspiracy to exclude them," Hollander wrote for Windsor Hills' centennial publication, Windsor Hills: A Century of History, published in 1995. So Windsor Hills' neighborhood association and about a half-dozen other like-minded groups formed Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., a nonprofit organization that promotes viable interracial communities. The organization included in its mission statement that it would fight "blockbusting, racial steering, and racial harassment [and] create and open housing market . . . by investigating complaints of discrimination."

Today African-Americans make up the majority of homeowners in Windsor Hills, though maintaining an integrated neighborhood is still important to residents. New families of all races continue to buy into area, which Hollander says is a sign that Windsor Hills' experiment in integration over the years has been a success.

"The only way we're going to survive is to integrate," Hollander says. "This living in distinct racial units just does not work. The only way to get along with each other is to know each other."

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