Remembering the Glory Days of Deli on Corned Beef Row
Stand on this stretch of Lombard today and you'll see abandoned storefronts, bombed-out former factories, and tenement housing. Until it was imploded a few weeks ago, the street's most distinctive feature was the bleak, looming hulk of the Flag House Courts housing project. You can still get a corned-beef sandwich at Lenny's, or Weiss' across the street, or Attman's, of course, the city's last outpost of genuine old-style Jewish deli. But these are echoes--scattered remnants of a time when there was such a thing as Baltimore deli and this stretch of Lombard was its epicenter.
On this spot 60 or 70 years ago, you'd have been surrounded by a marketplace so busy and full of life that it would rival any modern-day city center. Here sprouted a commercial district to accommodate the many Jewish immigrants who, like so many other Eastern Europeans, flocked to Baltimore in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and settled largely on the east side.
A walk down East Lombard in the 1930s was like walking down the aisle of a giant outdoor grocery store. A description in a 1924 edition of The Sun conjures up images of an Old World square, with chicken cages and produce stands lining the street. Harry and Lena Tulkoff started one such stand in the 1920s but by 1930 were focusing exclusively on their famous horseradish. On the 900 block sat the brick facade of Wartzman's bakery--famous for its bagels baked in an old open-fire stove. A few stores down was deli supplier C&B, a modest-looking storefront with a back-room kitchen from which emanated a steady stream of salami, pastrami, corned beef, and sausages.
No sooner would the scent of wursts leave your nose than it would be caressed--or assaulted, depending on your tastes--by the aroma of lox and whitefish. Cohen's deli and grocery was famous throughout Maryland for its smoked fish. Across the street was another Cohen's--no relation--where the specialty was poultry and where the butcher would slaughter the chicken of your choice right before your eyes. Even those who didn't keep kosher frequented Cohen's because it was reputed to have the freshest fowl in Baltimore.
In the next block were some of the the big names in Baltimore deli--the ones that show up in Barry Levinson movies and in the reveries of old-timers chattering about cherished lunch breaks a half-century ago: Weiss', Jack's, Attman's. Sussman and Lev's, one of the first, offered competition on nearby Baltimore Street. The men behind the counters wore long white coats and sold a pound of corned beef for less than a dollar. There were other loci of deli culture in Baltimore--Ballow's and Nate's and Leon's on North Avenue, Kessler's and Lapides' in Park Heights--but there was nothing quite like Corned Beef Row.
"Ah yes, Lombard Street," says Jack, a white-haired lifelong Baltimorean and ex-police officer (who asked that his full name not be used). He sits back in his chair and smiles. "'Jewtown,' we used to call it. But everyone called it that. Even the Jews."
Growing up in the '50s, Jack (who isn't Jewish) wold accompany his father every week to Corned Beef Row. "It was like going into a festive marketplace," he says.
A long bar ran the length of the back of Attman's. There wasn't a single table or chair, so men would come and eat their sandwiches standing at the bar, recalls Seymour Attman, 74, the second-generation owner of his family's business. Attman's always carried knishes and, of course, every variety of Dr. Brown's soda (with the picture of the Brooklyn Bridge on the can).
Jack remembers his father standing at the deli counter--which deli, he can't recall--asking the counterman for a slice of pastrami, and handing it to his son. "'I'll take some of this and this, and how 'bout that, Jack?' my father would say. And he would let me try everything." Jack crosses his hands over his tie clip, two tiny handcuffs locked together. "I remember all those delis had sawdust on the floor. I remember them sweeping it up at night, and then throwing some more down," he says. The sawdust kept the hardwood floors clean--it was a terrific absorbent. "But what a sandwich. The best corned beef, or pastrami, or salami. The best hot sandwich you could get."
But these delis weren't just sandwich shops; that's a relatively new concept. Seymour Attman says the old groceries only served sandwiches as a "sideline," to lure walk-in customers. When his father, Harry Attman, opened his first deli in 1915, he sold corned-beef sandwiches for a nickel. "That way they would stop in and see what else they wanted to buy," Seymour Attman says.
Attman's served not just Baltimore but also much of the Southeast, where Jewish groceries were rare if not nonexistent. "There were no Jewish stores in the South at that time, nowhere to get kosher meats," Attman says. "So we would ship food down there."
By the time Jack and his father were making their weekly walks down Corned Beef Row in the '50s, the seeds of the marketplace's demise were already taking root. The Jewish marketplace's upwardly mobile clientele was leaving the east side for the city's northwest corridor and, ultimately, the suburbs, where a new kind of store served their shopping needs.
"Things really changed once the big supermarkets came into town," Attman says. In the '60s, desegregation and social unrest, especially the rioting that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., turned the flow of whites leaving town into a torrent. Downtown business districts were crippled.
Many of the old-line Jewish businesses tried to stick it out, but by the late '70s Corned Beef Row was little more than a nostalgic nickname. Tulkoff left in 1980 for a larger factory in Canton. Jack's moved out to Baltimore County, setting up shop as a suburban chain (there's one left in Woodlawn). Attman's also tried to expand outside the city, but the business never took in the burbs. Now it holds down one corner of the surviving corned-beef triangle. "We adapted," Attman explains, shifting the store's priority from sandwiches and supermarket items to catering. "Most of the others didn't."
In many ways, Attman's is a sole survivor. Weiss' has hung on and still does regular lunchtime business, but the ambiance is more truck stop than delicatessen--gray-lit gloom, acrylic baseball caps hanging on the wall, a dining room devoid of decoration. In 1991, the Owings Mills deli Lenny's opened an outpost in a green brick building across the street, behind a sign proclaiming the lombard street tradition continues. Lenny's does sell knishes and "Jack's Corned Beef," but it's more cafeteria than delicatessen, and the tradition to which it seems most dedicated is the lottery.
Attman's stays afloat largely by making deli platters for corporate parties and luncheons, but there are still thick crowds at the counter for lunch, jostling for the sandwich-makers' attention under '40s-vintage advertisements on the wall and salamis hanging from the ceiling.
If you crave the old-school deli experience along with your mustard-soaked sandwich, this is the place to be--for the time being, at least. Asked about his deli's future, Seymour Attman hesitates, then laughs nervously.
"A good question," he says. "There's nothing like it anymore."
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Baltimore, MD 21201