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.

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Baltimore Suburbia: a Foreign Land We Want to Discover

Posted on February 8th, 2012 by

A blog post by Laura Tomes.

The Go-Between, a romantic novel published by L.P. Hartley in 1953, opens with the now famous line, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Many historians now take this concept for granted, and not without good intention. The idea that the past is a foreign country means that as historians we should not presume that our own values can be read seamlessly into the times and places we research. We should allow the past to speak in its own language, through the ideas and images of its own time.

It is easy to get excited about trips to foreign places. They are pregnant with possibility: new worlds to discover, new cultures to appreciate, new foods to savor. A journey into the foreign past is a journey into the unknown. It has the ability to surprise us. Jewish boxers in interwar Baltimore? Who knew?! The foreign past can challenge our understandings of who we are and where we have been.

 

Fun-A –Rama in Pikesville, 1956.

When we work on the history of the relatively recent past, however, the sense of the foreign can get lost. The recent past is familiar to those who lived it. How can something be exciting, undiscovered or full of possibility, when it took place right here in Baltimore, just forty years ago? Well, to those of us who did not live it, and even for those who did, recent history can still be full of surprises. The Jewish Museum of Maryland is collecting pictures of Jewish life in Baltimore’s suburbs during the 1950s and 1960s. That means pictures of children playing in the backyard, Mom and Dad standing proudly next to the “Sold” sign, suburban neighborhoods, family simchas, and gatherings in the kitchen, living room, dining room and basement. In short, all those photographs that most family albums are teeming with. To you, these pictures might not seem very interesting, but to others who had different experiences of suburban life, or who never experienced it personally, it is a foreign place waiting to be discovered.

 

Did your suburban home look like this?

 

For me, Baltimore’s suburbs are quite literally foreign country. I came to America from the U.K. in 2008 to begin working on my PhD, and subsequently began working at the JMM on our suburbia project. I’m fascinated to see how your images of Baltimore compare to the Jewish suburbs of England that I am more familiar with. For the class that we are teaching at Johns Hopkins University this semester, in which we are developing a travelling exhibit about the move to suburbia, the suburbs of the 1950s and 1960s are a foreign land that the students know only through family stories, and through films and TV shows. Yet the fact that the success of the show Mad Men has inspired stores to produce 1950s themed clothing lines shows us that the foreign land of the 1950s and 1960s is a place that these young people are keen to discover.

 

Etta Salabes standing behind sofa, Ruth Salabes (Cohen) seated on sofa, and Julius Cohen seated on sofa.

Even for those who were present, who made the history of the Jewish suburbs of Baltimore in the 1950s and 1960s, there might still be a foreign land just off of Liberty Heights or Reisterstown Road that you never knew about. While the connotations of suburbia often suggest uniformity, the reality is that Baltimore’s Jewish suburbs are diverse places; full of different kinds of houses built at different times by different people and lived in by different kinds of families. Your photographs of your experience of suburbia might seem mundane to you, but they might be a foreign place to someone whose experiences of suburban life were different.

So please consider bringing your pictures of suburbia to show us! We are also interested in hearing your stories. If you would be willing to sit and talk with me about the different places where you lived in Baltimore during the 1950s and 1960s, please contact me at ltomes@jewishmuseummd.org, or by calling the museum and leaving your name and number. This foreigner is looking forward to discovering new lands through your eyes.

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SURPRISE!!

Posted on February 6th, 2012 by

By Rachel Cylus, Program Manager

It has been exactly one month and one day since I started my job as the Program Manager here at the JMM, and just over five weeks since I returned to America after 1.5 years living in Germany.  Pretty high up on my list of priorities was, of course, spending time with my grandmother, Helen Goldberg, who turned 90 on January 17th (the same day as Betty White!!).

Being just as eager to manage programs at home as I am at work, my mom and I set to work planning a surprise party to celebrate our very own Golden Girl.  And since no party, or program for that matter, would be complete without an activity of some sort, we decided to recreate an autograph book that my grandmother had as a child, and invite all of the guests to write messages in it.  Not wanting to spring this extra assignment on anyone last minute, we called our guests ahead of time to let them think about some fun memories and stories that they might want to write in grandma’s 90th birthday autograph book.

One of the women’s stories fit so perfectly with a project that we are working on at the Museum, that I had to share it with all of you.  But first, a bit of background:

One of the projects that I will be helping with here at the JMM is a traveling exhibition that we are developing called: The Next Big Thing: Jewish Life on the Suburban Frontier.  The exhibit will be about the Jewish community’s move to Northwest Baltimore County in the 1950s and 60s, and as with all JMM exhibitions, we of course want any family photos you have that relate!

When I sat down with Laura Tomes and Dean Krimmel, who are heading up this project and partnering with the JMM to teach a class at Johns Hopkins on the same subject, the first thing Dean did was ask me my own family’s history.  In discussing Grandma Helen’s epic 90 year long journey from Eastern Avenue to Pikesville (at least it sounds epic when she tells it!), I mentioned that she had sold real estate starting in the 60s.  Dean’s eyes lit up, and a few days later he sent me an email.  He looked up my grandmother’s name on theBaltimoreSun online through the Enoch Pratt Library and found her real estate listings.  “Time to get out the tape recorder!” he told me.

Real estate listing from Helen Goldberg and Loretta Roomer The Sun, June 18, 1972.

What he did not know was that just a few lines above my grandmother’s listing was another familiar name.  It was the name of a life long friend of my grandmother, and of course, a guest at her upcoming surprise party.  When we called to tell Loretta about the autograph book, she knew just what she wanted to write about.  They have been friends since childhood – Loretta turns ninety this summer, but it was their years working together in real estate that cemented a lifelong friendship.

Grandma Helen (Left) blows out the candles to her birthday cake sitting next to her lifelong friend and real estate colleague, Loretta Rooner.

The class at Hopkins began yesterday, and I am fortunate enough to get to take it in conjunction with helping develop the exhibition.  I look forward to sharing with all of you as I learn more about the suburbanization of Baltimore’s Jewish community and draw more connections between my family’s history and the JMM.

Getting down to business with the Hopkins class.

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