Baltimore Then and Now

By J E Firth <>
September 11, 2003

     All you Baltimore "youngsters" out there speak of the "old" Baltimore but indulge me in my recollections for a few minutes and let me tell you about remembrances which go back almost 70 years.

     I came to Baltimore in early 1932 at the age of 11. My father was an "undercover" Pinkerton detective and had been transferred here from Harrisburg where we had lived for about 5 years. Prior to that, we lived in Toronto, Canada where I was born. We temporarily resided in an apartment in Mt. Vernon Place opposite the park and directly opposite the Peabody School Of Music.

     Many a summer day I played in the small park along with a couple of kids I got to know. We played "mumbly peg" and the only mischief we got into was to shoot the goldfish in the pools with bent pins and rubber bands. We also made "bowie" guns out of pieces of wood and rubber bands cut from inner tubes When released, they really stung.

     I watched the delivery of the first legal beer at 12 o'clock the first night prohibition ended. This was outside the Abbey Hotel at the corner of St. Paul and Madison Streets. The beer was in wooden kegs as well as brown bottles which had makeshift temporary labels identifying it as "Gunther's Beer"

     We were not far from the "hub" of the shopping district which at that time was Howard and Lexington streets. Starting at Charles St and walking west on Lexington you would pass O'Neils Dept Store ( he endowed the building of the magnificent Cathedral of Mary, Our Queen on upper Charles St.) Across the street was Loew's Century theater which featured the latest films and stage shows involving personalities of the day. Before every show, Harvey Hammond would play the huge Wurlitzer in a "sing along" with the audience. Continuing in your walk you would see Planter's Mr Peanut handing out hot samples. Crossing Liberty St. you passed Reads Drug store across from the BGE bldg. Reads had a store at just about every intersection. After Liberty was Julius Gutman Dept store and Keith's movie theater. There was a "Keith's Roof" which featured dancing every night along with Billy Antrim's orchestra. It also housed the radio studio of WCBM. Continuing on Lexington, was Grants, Woolworth's. Tuerkes Leather Goods and the New movie theater owned by Morris Mechanic who later built the Morris Mechanic on Baltimore St and is still there today. I forgot to mention that the Century had a theater upstairs known as the Valencia. You had to take an elevator to access it. Continuing your walk, you would come to Howard and Lexington.    

     This was the Hub. Stewart's , Kohn, The May Company. and Hutzler Brothers. were all there. Any of you remember the adorable LAUGHING SANTA CLAUS in Hochild's window at Christmas time? The next block had the beginning of the Lexington Market. Schrieber Brothers. had two butcher shops here; one at Eutaw corner. the other at the Paca St. corner. Further on Lexington was the Koester Bread factory. I can still smell its aroma!

     In all this hustle and bustle of activity, there was something missing-----there were no Blacks (with the exception of Lexington Mkt). They did not shop the Dept stores nor attend the theaters. There were no statutes barring them from the area. It was just a subtle form of segregation that both whites and blacks understood. That's just the way it was!

     The Black community had a shopping and entertainment center of their own which was affectionately referred to as "the Avenue". It was Pennsylvania Avenue which began at W. Franklin St. and continued a northwest course almost to North Avenue stopping at Division St. The lower end of the Avenue housed the Provident hospital which was maintained solely for Blacks. The upper part of the Avenue housed the retail stores and a few . It was a busy and thriving community. The intersecting streets. included Dolphin, Biddle, Preston and Lanvale. Ironically, many of the merchants were white. The major theater in the 1300 block was called The Royal. It was a beautiful theater featuring motions pictures and stage shows. By no means, was it a "Penny Ante" operation. As a young teen, I and other whites attended the Royal to see the performances of famous Black personalities of that period. These included Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Eubie Blake, Moms Mobley, Ethel Waters,as well as Al Jolson (in Black Face) performing WITH Cab Callaway. I never saw Lena Horne, but I did see and hear the tragic Billie Holiday perform. If you relished Jazz and Swing, this was the place to go! There were no feelings of animosity or resentment. In fact, we felt welcome and I at least, looked forward to future performances. Unfortunately, in about 1965 it discontinued the stage shows and showed movies only. It was the beginning of the end. It was completely razed in 1970.

     Much has been said on the Xforum about the so-called "white line" on buses and trolleys when Blacks had to ride in the rear. Well, that was news to me; at no time did I ever see any segregation on the transit system. I rode the Baltimore transportation system in the 30's and 40's from the time it was operated by The United Railways, later the Baltimore Transit, including trolleys trackless trolleys, buses and the wonderful "double decker" buses that ran north and south on Charles St. starting a Baltimore St. all the way to University Parkway. During all this time, I was never aware of any such "lines". In fact, If you wanted a seat on a crowded vehicle, you sat beside a black person if there was a seat available. The only cry from the operator was "EVERYBODY MOVE TO THE REAR".

     Sadly, the Baltimore I knew and loved as a child and teenager, is no more! Look over the invisible facade of the beautiful Harbor Place and you behold the deterioration of a once beautiful city, often referred to as the Monumental City, not because it had many monuments, but because it was the first city to erect a memorial edifice honoring George Washington. Gone are the immaculately clean marble steps scrubbed daily and the gleaming and polished brass railings; gone is the May Flower Mart around the Washington monument sponsored by the Junior League Women and those wonderful lemons with peppermint sticks they featured; gone is the Hokey Pokey man and his cart, cleaning the gutters daily; gone are the beautiful Ginko Beloba trees that lined Charles Street from Mt Vernon Place to Preston St. As Margaret Mitchell would describe it, its gone: "GONE WITH THE WIND" never to be the same again. Happy Memories!

John E. Firth Pasadena, Md
P.S. Anyone remember the Cayhill(?) Teen center near Walbrook?

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