« Summer's end | Main | English is a mess, and so is everything else »

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. 




Posted by John McIntyre at 11:23 AM | | Comments (14)


John: Your words "the Sun's Moscow correspondent" brings back memories of a more ambitious newspaper, I will leave it at that. As to your posting, this city is still much more segregated than many others. When I drive through Chicago 's middle and lower-middle class residential neighborhoods, I am struck by how mixed they seem to be when compared with Baltimore. On the other hand, we have economic oddities, such as the fact that Hampden, which was a hard core white working class neighborhood into the 1990s, has always adjoined the genteel Wyman Park and Roland Park. Not the case in DC where I work--there's no Hampden-type neighborhood abutting Chevy Chase.

Anyone who wants to really understand Baltimore needs to read this book. Thanks to Hurricane Irene, I spent most daylight hours (and some evening flashlight time) with the book and wanted even more when it ended. I hear he will be talking about it at the Baltimore Book Festival, and if he does, I will be in the front row.

This gives me a better perspective on Hairspray. Funny movie (I've seen the movie, not the play, but please don't hold that against me).


Prof, McI.,

First off, excellent commentary. Appreciate your candor and personal perspective re/ your Charm City's less-than-charming historic legacy of a town long-divided by racial animus and bigotry.

Pietila's book sounds like a must read for anyone w/ any scintilla of a conscience, and an abiding interest in the thorny issue of race relations in America.

I'm sure you chose the header, "Mr. Pietila's neighborhood", partially as an echo of the theme and title of his important book, but also perhaps since it resonates, in a most familiar way, w/ the iconic long-running PBS kid's TV program, "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood", w/ its late folksy, soft-spoken, unthreatening, grandfatherly host, Mr. Fred Rogers?

Of course, the popular SNL alum turned successful Hollywood actor, Eddie Murphy, played the antithesis of the much-loved Mr. Rogers, w/ his caustic SNL satirical segments of "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood".

Murphy, as the street-smart, wise-cracking Mr. Robinson was either getting into major hot water w/ his grumpy apartment landlord (slumlord), or barely managing to keep clear of the clutches of the law.

He would always open w/ "Hi boys, and girls......", as he snuck into his shabby apartment, slipping into his ratty old cardigan sweater, and then putting on a nifty pair of red Converse sneakers (likely stolen goods), faithfully mimicking Mr. Rogers' opening routine, prior to getting down to the lesson(s) of the day. (Usually describing some illegal, or underhanded scam to nab some ill-gotten gains.)

To me, Murphy's clever Mr. Rogers parody sketches, as the ever-scheming Mr. Robinson, underscored the great seemingly entrenched racial divide, and disparity of intrinsic social advantage widely separating Blacks and Whites in America of that period. (Some might argue that I'm reading far too much sociological import into Murphy's work.)

Despite all the apparent Civil Rights gains (and sacrifices) made throughout the sixties and into the seventies, for most Black folk, much of the inequalities, prejudices, and societal marginalization remained the same. Blacks in many of our larger U.S. metropolises still constituted the bulk of the underclass-------the recipients of substandard public school instruction, and dangerous, and unkempt, slum-standard, public housing.---The Projects.

While generations of America's White middle-class toddlers grew up watching Mr. Rogers, and eventually graduated to Sesame Street on PBS, (often w/ an attentive parent by their side), most Black inner-city youngsters got their formative 'education' on the mean streets of ghettoized urban America, and odds are, were latch-key kids, living in a single-parent, or single-grandparent family scenario.

Although a complete creature of TV fiction, and social satire, Murphy's Mr. Robinson, IMHO, represented aspects of the typical 'graduate' of the street school-of- hard-knocks-----Living by his innate wits and guile; a likely future of either an early violent demise, or serial incarceration.

Ironically, it was announced, just yesterday, that Eddie Murphy has been selected as host for next year's Oscar awards telecast. Many entertainment pundits are immediately questioning the choice, but I'm confident many old Murphy fans will tune in just to see if his feisty, angry Mr. Robinson, or adorable, gaped-toothed Buckwheat might just make a surprise cameo appearance. (Or, that annoying donkey character from Shrek. HA!)


I didn't know what the devil Sen Obama was talking about when he spouted "post-racial" during his campaign, and I realize now that it meant then,as now, very little. Rather it was just more campaign stuff, not unlike what we've heard during the last couple of years. The moral is, I suppose, pay no attention to campaign slogans.

Our estimable proprietor says, "Ours is a mixed block now, as it should be." I endorse the sentiment, but it glosses over important differences in what people of different races understand by "should." Thomas Schelling noted the mechanism by which small differences in preferred racial mixes evolve into segregated neighborhoods, even when everybody making decisions about where to rent or buy actively prefers mixed neighborhoods. If whites think an ideal mixed neighborhood is 20 percent black, and blacks think an ideal mixed neighborhood is 50 percent white, neither of these being unreasonable or bigoted, neighborhoods will trend over time to 100 percent one or the other.

My opinion is that diversity is good, and I don't care about statistics. I am white and part of a stable minority in my neighborhood (Cooper Square); my family has four persons of three different skin colors.

P the T, I'm no expert on everything our current president ever said, but I do not recall that he ever used the term "post-racial." Can you supply quotes?

Patricia the T.,

As you may recall, the keynote campaign slogan that presidential hopeful, Illinois Senator Barack Obama, ran with, which I would argue helped in no small measure to jettison him into the presidency in '08, was "Hope & Change". Somehow those two words profoundly resonated w/ the U.S. electorate, at large.

Clearly, almost three years hence the "Hope" has diminished, but yet flickers, although the anticipated "Change" Obama and his Democratic administration had envisioned in the run-up to the last general election and beyond, appears to have sadly devolved into nasty, dare I say petty, partisan Congressional gridlock along the Washington Beltway, w/ very minimal substantive legislative strides having been advanced to change the fundamental politics-as-usual status quo on Capitol Hill. The recent embarrassing 11th-hour deficit crisis resolution--- a case in point.

I would argue that the notion of a "post racial" America, as you put it, "spouted" by then Senator Obama, was postulated in the spirit of that aforementioned rekindled "Hope", rather than an actual belief that we, as a nation, have fully put the issue of racial division in this country to its final rest, and all is just hearts-and-flowers kumbia, hunky-dory.

The very fact that the Dems would have the courage and political will to even nominate a Black man (technically a biracial man) to run for the highest governmental office in the land, and further, the fact that he would be fairly elected as our first president-of-color, in the entire history of this great Republic, seemed to indicate that just maybe a "post racial" America was within our grasp. With Obama's victory, for a brief moment in time, anything, no matter how far-fetched, or improbable seemed possible.

But alas, the harsh realities of actually trying to govern within the framework of the sharply polarized, highly partisan Washington political arena became manifest over these going-on-three-years that Obama and the Dems have held office, w/ the issue of Obama's 'blackness', competence to lead, and problem solve, and the lingering question of his legitimate citizenship amongst the 'birther' fringe always lurking just below the surface of the political fray.

The GOP are now scrambling to muster a viable, potentially winning presidential candidate to oppose (or depose) Obama. The genius Republican strategists have adopted a steadfast just-say-no policy, balking at any, and all proposed Obama job creation measures, or suggested Fed spending initiatives to encourage potential employment; basically playing the tired old hardline partisan political game to the letter, as tens of millions of struggling Americans, in a depressed economy run amok, are losing their 'under-water' homes, their businesses, their marriages, their jobs, their sanity......... if they even have a full-time job to go to.

Frankly, I think the Republicans should change their traditional GOP moniker to the acronym, 'GOOP'------'Good Old Obfuscating Party', whose major mission these days seems to be a philosophy of winning at all costs by gumming up ("gooping up') the political works w/ their partisan 'goop'. Messieurs Boehner, McConnell and Cantor are the prime orchestrators of this beat-Obama-in-2012-or-bust strategy, as this nation, meanwhile, continues to go to hell in a hand-basket.

Patricia, I will concede that most political campaign slogans are really so much bluster and hype (hyperbole). A catchy line basically attempting to sell a particular candidate to the electorate, usually attempting to codify in some pithy manner the pol's aspirations, or future goals, if he, or she were to come out victorious. Yet I would argue that most savvy, committed, and informed voters hold little, if any stock in political sloganeering. "I Like Ike" had a cute ring to it, but wouldn't have inspire me to vote for the guy.

Yet one can not underestimate, in my view, the major impact that that striking red-white-and-blue portrait of Obama's boldly graphic, now iconic, 2008 campaign poster w/ the single word "HOPE", ultimately had in galvanizing the U.S. electorate, playing a huge role in his eventual November '08 victory.

No Black Obama depicted there. Just the pure, primary patriotic colors of Old Glory, and one short four-letter word, in bold caps, "HOPE".

I would like to think that the hope, and prospects for a post-racial America lives on. (I'm a cock-eyed optimist, I guess.)

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. prophetically told that teaming mass of Black, White, Yellow, Brown, and Red brethren, all bearing witness to his moving "I Had a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C., "I may not get there with you to the Promised Land". But damn it, he had an abiding and undaunted faith in the innate goodness, and humanity in all God's children, and that one day absolute freedom and equality would eventually reign over this great land. A 'post-racial' America would no longer be just a dream, but a reality.

King died a martyr to his noble vision for a color-blind America in the spring of 1968, never getting to that Promised Land he so yearned for.

Folks, will we EVER get there?

That light of hope still flickers.


we have been told ours is a mixed block. Antero knows. It is about as mixed as Levittown& the JWV coop where we started(ps we are still in our 'starter' house)

Thank you, Alex.

"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."

Careful. If you've read NIMN, you know that many of the blockbiusters were, ironically, black and Jewish businessmen. To say that every white in Baltimore in the 40s and 50s and 60s was complicit in the stoking of white may be true, but so were some black and Jewish shysters.

Patricia -- You made an important observation about different takes on the tipping point. And I think the tipping point for whites is far lower than for blacks. That tipping point is determined not only by the racial mix but observations about the general state of the neighborhood, including shopping, and the amount of non-acceptable behavior (from the resident's viewpoint).
I tried to figure this out for my book. I detail Ashburton where the tipping point was below 1.5 percent black! Said otherwise, Ashburton was "on probation" the moment the first black moved in.
Incidentally, old white Ashburton residents still get together regularly. Many may not have seen their old neighborhood for decades. I was invited to promote my book during an Ashburton garden tour. It occurred to me that black Ashburton has now existed for longer than the white/Jewish Ashburton ever did. I have been invited to an Ashburton block part Saturday.

A friend who lives near Rochester, NY (which boasts a 75% drop-out rate in the schools and a black majority in the population, city government and school board administration) has worked for a number of years in so-called fair housing. After watching how and where peoplel of all colors and economic levels live and generally behave, her conclusion is that what is generally blamed on race is economic class.When a neighborhood becomes appalling,the last people to move to better curcumstances are blacks - the first are white, followed by Hispanics. I don't know why this is the case, but the people who worry about these things at HUD agree, although they seem to see everything through racial glasses. And I don't know why 'mixed' neighborhoods are supposed to be so desirable.People live where the do for any number of reasons: what they can afford,schools, safety and closeness to stores, banks, etc. This has little to do with skin color, but with a number of other considerations. A number of black families in Syracuse have moved to an eastern suburb because the crime rate is lower and the schools are better and they worry about their children. Amazing.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected