Mr. Pietila's neighborhood
We know that grand old Baltimore, that comfortable town that Mencken loved, with the tidy streets of rowhouses with marble steps that housewives washed every Saturday night, with crab feasts and people chatting with their neighbors on front porches on warm summer nights as the children chased fireflies under the streetlights.
We also know that that Baltimore of the sweet haze of nostalgia existed because a complex web of legal and business arrangements, formal and informal, kept African-Americans and Jews out of Roland Park and Guilford and many other neighborhoods.* We know that black residents in particular were the victims of predatory practices that kept them in overcrowded districts with deteriorating housing stock.
Both Baltimores existed, side by side. If you want to understand Baltimore, what it was through the twentieth century and how it became the Baltimore of today, you need to read Antero Pietila’s Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City (Ivan R. Dee, 320 pages, $28.95, also now available in paperback). Mr. Pietila is a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun—I edited his copy when he was the paper’s Moscow correspondent—and a writer of clarity and force.
Everyone in white Baltimore in the twentieth century was involved in the racism, the fear and dislike of black people, that created these two Baltimores. Everyone. Residents, real estate agents, governmental officials, businessmen (including a prominent philanthropist), journalists, and, most shamefully, clergy. The most reprehensible were the blockbusters from the 1940s into the 1960s who helped insinuate black residents into white neighborhoods, stampeding the white residents, buying their houses on the cheap and flipping them to black buyers at inflated prices. But the blockbusters could not have operated without the complicity generated by the dominant racist attitudes.
There are not many heroes in Mr. Pietila’s neighborhood. There is W. Ashbie Hawkins, who bought a house in a white district on McCullough Street in 1910. That triggered a series of municipal segregation ordinances. And there are many other African-Americans who braved hatred and legal obstacles to provide better housing for their families. There are the members of the United States Supreme Court, who struck down housing covenants in 1948 and school segregation in 1954. There is Mayor Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, a Republican (!), who tried valiantly to diminish the hysteria in white neighborhoods.
And that is how we got where we are today: Baltimore, with many exclusively black impoverished neighborhoods, with a number of still largely white neighborhoods, and some in which a mixed population manages to live harmoniously. (There are also Jewish families in Roland Park.) The city abuts Baltimore County, to which many whites fled and which, though there are corridors of black neighborhoods, remains largely, and determinedly, white.
Legal segregation is gone, and the most vicious forms of public racism are silenced. But I think that much of the talk at the time of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency of a “post-racial society” was hopeful blather. We need to face the realities. The past is past, and unchanging, but understanding how it shaped the present might help us to organize the future better. Mr. Pietila has a great deal to tell us in Baltimore about who we were, and who we are.
*Not just the tony neighborhoods either. The deed to my house in Hamilton Hills, a modest middle-class neighborhood, bears a covenant prohibiting sale of the property to blacks (and another prohibiting the keeping of pigs on the premises). Such covenants the Supreme Court ruled unenforceable, so we were told when we bought the house that it was meaningless. I don’t like that it’s there, but it is a reminder of how things once were. Ours is a mixed block now, as it should be.