Becoming Pikesville

Posted on October 12th, 2012 by

By Research Historian Deb Weiner

Last weekend I volunteered on a political campaign in the swing state to the north. As I was sitting in the campaign office in Harrisburg, another group of Baltimore volunteers walked in. One of the women looked at me and said, “You look familiar.” She looked vaguely familiar to me as well. Neither of us could figure out how we knew each other until she offered, “I’m from Pikesville.” I responded, “Oh, I work at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. Have you been there?” Turns out she used to work at the Associated Jewish Federation, and we probably met at some kind of Associated-related event.

To anyone from Baltimore, my response would not seem to be a non sequitur. That’s because saying “I’m from Pikesville” is virtually a substitute for saying “I’m Jewish,” but without the awkwardness of announcing your religious identity to a (near) total stranger. The fact is, Pikesville is home to 30 percent of Baltimore-area Jews, according to the most recent Associated Population Study. Even more pertinent, around four out of five Jews live in the northwest portion of the Baltimore metro area, from Upper Park Heights to Owings Mills and beyond, in an area that might realistically be termed “Greater Pikesville.”

Which brings me to the subject of this blog post. Next Wednesday, October 17, we are opening the traveling exhibition “Jews on the Move: Baltimore and the Suburban Exodus, 1945 to 1968.” The exhibition reveals how and why Jews became concentrated in the metro area’s northwest suburbs in the decades after World War II. It was a process that took only a single generation to complete, but remains a powerful fact of Baltimore Jewish life today, several decades later.

It’s a national story, but with a local twist—Baltimore Jews joined the rush to suburbia that occurred across America after World War II, but why they ended up in one particular section of the metro area is a complex tale with a lot of local nuances. Ironically, the exhibition does not really focus on Pikesville, because it wasn’t until the early 1980s that Pikesville beat out Randallstown as the suburb of choice for Jews within northwest Baltimore. What the exhibition does do is show how the “northwest exodus” became firmly established in those early years of suburbanization, leading to the settlement patterns we see today.

By the way, I should mention that the exhibition is opening not here at the JMM, but at Hodson Hall on the Johns Hopkins University campus, where it will be on view until December 17. We created the exhibition in partnership with students in JHU’s Museums and Society program, through a class that JMM staff taught last spring.  The students were from all over (California, New York, D.C. suburbs) but by the time the semester ended they could throw around terms like “Baltimore Beltway” and “Mandell-Ballow” with ease.

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Field Trip to Pikesville

Posted on February 15th, 2012 by

A blog post by Program Manager Rachel Cylus.

Like all school students, as a child I looked forward to field trips – a break from the usual routine, and an opportunity to see something, new, different, exotic.  Growing up in Baltimore’s Jewish suburbs in the 1990s, Pikesville was just about the last place on my mind that would have qualified as a field trip.

But yesterday, as part of the third class of “Staging the Suburbs” at JHU, that is exactly what we did.

As eight students, Hopkins Professor Jennifer Kingsley, Museum director Avi Decter, class instructor Laura Tomes and I arrived at Hopkins’ Mason Hall, we found instructor Dean Krimmel already in conversation with our van driver, Joel.  Joel, as it turned out, was a local Jewish guy who had grown up in precisely the neighborhoods we planned on visiting – how perfect!

Dean, as it turned out, envisioned more than just a trip along the Jewish northwest trajectory out of the city, he had arranged for a bit of time travel.  Each student and Professor Kingsley was assigned the identity of an actual Jewish Baltimorean who decided to move to the suburbs in the 1950s.  Each was given an index card with their new name and a short biography detailing their current living situation, profession, family status, and reasons for moving.  Laura, Dean and Avi played housing developers prepared to “sell the suburbs”, and I was given the role of housing realtor, Helen Goldberg (yup, my grandma!! See February 6th blog posting).

From the moment we began, it was clear that the students had really taken their 1950s identities seriously, pairing up with their “spouses”, and discussing their housing priorities.  Ryan (Freshman) portrayed a 45 year old wife and mother, and dedicated himself to finding a neighborhood with good schools for his middle school age children.  Amanda (Sophomore) and Evan (Junior) took on their role as “newlyweds” earnestly, worrying about whether their meager incomes would ever allow them to move their young and growing family out of their parents’ home.

Our adventure to the suburbs began as we headed towards Druid Hill Park.  Driving along lower Park Heights Avenue, students were challenged to see the neighborhood as they would have in the 1950s, when the World War I era homes and synagogues were part of a predominantly Jewish neighborhood.  Today this part of Baltimore City is mostly an African American neighborhood, and although many of the synagogues retain architectural elements related to their past use (star of David windows, engraved ten commandments), they are now churches.

When we reached the 3700 block of Park Heights, we passed one of the childhood homes of my grandmother at 3701.  Now a Baptist Church, my grandmother lived in this house until it was sold to the Trenton Democratic Club, an important political organization in Baltimore for many years.  She remembers it as a wonderful house to throw parties in.

The first suburban neighborhoods that we visited were near Cross Country Elementary school.  The wooded hills were speckled with red brick bungalows, split levels and cottages.

These modest homes on little plots were a stark comparison to the row homes and front porch culture of the city.  As we continued further along Park Heights Avenue the synagogues grew larger and the separation between residential and commercial districting became more apparent.  From Sugarville to Ranchleigh to Smith Avenue, the housing diversity of the suburbs was clear.

I was amazed by how different these oh-so familiar streets and places seemed to me.  A field trip to Pikesville suddenly seemed far more interesting that I expected.  The houses and synagogues and schools became more dynamic as Dean explained how and when they were developed and I allowed myself to imagine moving to Pikesville before the ease of the Expressway, the Beltway and even Northern Parkway, when the suburbs may have seemed more like the boonies.

The field trip ended with a stop at Miller’s Delicatessen for a snack and discussion (potato knish and Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda).

Was the move to the suburbs the the beginning of the breakdown of the Jewish community?  Or just an opportunity to reimagine it?

As the grandchild of the generation who moved to the suburbs, it is hard for me to imagine Jewish Baltimore without Pikesville, or for that matter, Pikesville without Baltimore Jews.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Baltimore’s Suburban Story

Posted on August 1st, 2011 by

A blog post by Summer Intern Laura Tomes.

For the past two months, I have been doing the preliminary research for a new exhibit on suburbia and nostalgia in Baltimore from 1950-1980. In the course of my reading, I have discovered that suburbia is a slippery concept. Everybody knows what suburbs are, but no-one agrees quite how to define them. Jewish suburbia is even harder to pin down. What are the Jewish suburbs of Baltimore? The Northwest, of course! Pikesville, Owings Mills and Reisterstown. Once we could include Randallstown in that list too. But how and when did they become Jewish suburbs?  The U.S. census does not ask questions about religious affiliation, so it is difficult to know how many Jews have historically lived in any given place at any given time. But, we can make some logical deductions.

Baltimore’s Urban-Rural Demarcation Line, created in 1967, distinguishes between the suburbs of Baltimore and the rural areas surrounding them. Photo Credit: http:///www.neighborspacebaltimorecounty.org/About.html, accessed 7.20.11

The suburbs of Baltimore were not divided into census tracts until 1960. So to compare and contrast population growth before 1960, we have to look to a bigger unit of population measurement, one that has been used for a much longer period of time: the minor civil division. The area around Randallstown corresponds to minor civil division 2, the area around Pikesville corresponds to minor civil division 3, and the area around Owings Mills and Reisterstown corresponds to minor civil division 4. Looking at the population data from the census for these areas yields some interesting results. In 1940, the population for these three minor civil divisions numbered only around 7,000 people. By 1950, it had grown only by about 2-3,000. However, between 1950 and 1960, the population of these three areas grew to around 25,000 – an increase of more than double. Between 1960 and 1970, the population doubles again, increasing to between 30,000 and 50,000. By 1980, however, the population growth levels out, only increasing by 3-5,000 people.

Reisterstown in 1936. How much has changed!

So we can tell from this that 1950-1970 are clearly the most important years in the growth of Baltimore’s Jewish suburbs. Add to the population figures the fact that the Beltway was constructed between 1959 and 1962, and that the Social Security Administration headquarters were built in Woodlawn in 1960, and we begin to get a sense of why the suburbs of northwest Baltimore became convenient places to live and work in these decades. Indeed, we have found that many new housing developments were advertised in the Baltimore Jewish Times along Liberty and Reisterstown roads beginning in the early 1950’s,  It is interesting, however that during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the real estate advertisements of the Baltimore Jewish times are full almost exclusively with adverts for apartment blocks being built in suburbs outside the Beltway. In addition, marriage announcements frequently include references to young couples beginning their married lives in suburban apartment complexes such as Scotts Level, Eton Hall, and Pikesville Plaza. So while suburban development began with housing development in the early 1950’s, it seems there was definitely a trend towards suburban apartment living amongst young Baltimore Jews during the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Field’s Pharmacy at Pikesville medical center, 1958.

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