In his new book, former Baltimore Sun reporter Antero Pietila has flung open the door on Baltimore’s past as a leader in residential segregation.
How did we get to the world of “The Wire?” Think of “Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City” as a spellbinding, non-fiction prequel to the HBO series.
Pietila clearly has a big national story to tell. The book shows how discrimination toward African Americans and Jews shaped today’s cities, how eugenics and white supremacist thinking drove the federal government’s housing policies and how redlining and blockbusting evolved into the corrosive subprime mortgage craze we just experienced.
But when Baltimoreans open this much-anticipated book — and read new details about racial and religious covenants and admissions quotas and real estate practices in their hometown — they’ll feel a special sting because the story’s central characters – famous families and prominent institutions — are still right here.
Released this month, “Not in My Neighborhood” is the product of ten years of research and interviews with key players in the Baltimore real estate market. Pietila dug through city records, haunted the Maryland Room of the Enoch Pratt Central Library, and parlayed contacts from his Sun days into interviews with aging real estate brokers involved in the lucrative business of segregating Baltimore’s neighborhoods.
The book exposes the clandestine dealings that rendered the city physically, economically and politically divided – ghettoization that has only deepened over time. While the broad outlines of this story are known, Pietila has connected prominent local figures to the city’s legacy of segregation and filled holes in the narrative, revealing that very little about the process was random.
Rouse and Meyerhoff
Be prepared, Baltimore: there are no sacred cows in “Not in My Neighborhood.”
Using an unprecedented amount of primary source documents obtained from the Baltimore Jewish Council, Pietila finds anti-Semitic residential practices — and names — that raise eyebrows.
Noted Jewish builder and philanthropist Joseph Meyerhoff, for instance, refused to rent or sell to fellow Jews in the area of Roland Park, which he had developed in partnership with the Roland Park Company. Pietila writes.
Meyerhoff was eventually confronted by the Baltimore Jewish Council in 1948 in a formal letter beseeching him to show solidarity with the Jewish community, but he claimed he’d be ruined if he opened his developments to Jews in a city where most of his customers weren’t. The recovered correspondence described in Pietila’s book is clear – Jews resisting housing bias had no ally in Joseph Meyerhoff.
Other prominent names appear in unexpected places. In 1951, James W. Rouse, as co-manager with another mortgage banker of the Marylander Apartment building in north Baltimore, defended the establishment of a 12 percent quota on Jews until the building was 75 percent rented.
Built on a parcel owned by the Roland Park Company, the Marylander was one of many apartments at the time in the city that either restricted or completely excluded Jews. Rouse would later be hailed as a pioneering real estate developer who championed integrated “new town” communities.
But “in 1951,” Pietila writes, “Rouse was not yet a saint.”
Hopkins, Maryland admissions quotas
Anti-Semitism at the time also permeated the highest levels of higher education. According to Pietila’s research, Johns Hopkins University, forsaking the beliefs of its Quaker founders, limited Jewish admission numbers in the mid-1940s to ten percent (a number which rose incrementally over the years to 17 per cent.)
Pressed by the Jewish Council, the school agreed in 1951 to stop asking JHU applicants their religious affiliation, but in return the Council agreed “to try to disperse the Jewish pre-med applications” to other institutions.
Likewise, the University of Maryland Medical School capped Jewish applications at 14 percent in 1936, Pietila writes, and limited the number of local applicants to further discourage Jews. They finally eliminated the question of religion from applications in 1950.
There have long been rumors and whispers about these quotas, but here Pietila has documented them as fact.
“Not in My Neighborhood” breaks down the practice of “redlining” – denying access to housing and financial services to residents in racially determined areas. Pietila explains how banks used maps that were quietly drafted by the federal government to determine which neighborhoods to grant financing, and which to leave open to exploitive speculators.
White Protestants enjoyed preferential terms, while Blacks and Jews were denied bank mortgages. Each group was assigned its own hue in the four-color maps. (The ethnic hierarchy mirrored those devised by the eugenicists, Pietila observes.)
“Red, the universal color of alarm, smeared neighborhoods deemed to be ‘hazardous’ and dangerous’” because of their African American residents, Pietila writes.
The intermediate racial groups were left to fight for middle ground, and if white, were set upon by blockbusters looking to make a quick buck off of racial distrust.
Among these speculators, none emerge in as polarizing relief as Morris Goldseker, whom Pietila profiles with sweeping new detail.
Blockbusters’ nickname: “The 40 Theives”
Goldseker (or “Goldsucker,” as some under his stewardship called him) is depicted by Pietila as perhaps the most high-profile of the profiteers who acquired houses at low cost from panicked whites and sold them at strict terms and inflated prices to blacks.
Pietila relates an anecdote that took place during a suit filed against Goldseker. Upon learning that her house contract was with Goldseker, a widowed mother of six told the court that she had broken down into tears. Such was the power of his reputation.
The book reveals that much of the housing that blockbusters were turning over was of poor quality. After the war, cities began enforcing housing and health codes, and new black homeowners were unprepared for the ensuing costs. These are the roots of ghettoization in Baltimore.
Though the scare tactics of blockbusters are well known, “Not in My Neighborhood” goes further, documenting the reaction of media, politicians, and activists and taking readers into Baltimore’s psyche, as its racial makeup churned.
One especially vivid chapter, for instance, focuses on Fulton Avenue, which became a racial demarcation line with whites on one side and blacks on the other. The crossing of that line during the Christmas holidays in 1944 set off a chain reaction of panic, anti-black and anti-Jewish hostility and block busting that was a real tipping point for the city.
“If we can’t get any justice,” according to one account Pietila found, “I am sure the Ku Klux Klan can take this matter in their hands.”
Diverse Cast of Characters
No ethnic group or profession emerges with its hands entirely clean in the creation of a racially divided city.
Warren S. Shaw, a man Pietila describes as “a born hustler,” was an African American who came to Baltimore as a bus driver after city transit desegregated in 1953. He formed probably the first major business partnership with a white man, Manuel Bernstein.
“They were blockbusters, who created panic among whites. That was the white view,” Pietila said. “The black view was that blockbusters were agents of liberating desegregtion that gave blacks better housing.”
There are members of the clergy like Monsignor Louis Vaeth of St. Bernardine’s parish, (who fought from the pulpit to keep blacks out of Edmondson Village) and academics like William H. Welch (the first dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine (who directed eugenics research at the Cold Spring Laboratory.)
Famous and fascinating characters pop up, from Alger Hiss to Edgar Allan Poe (a grandnephew of the poet) to William Lloyd “Little Willie” Adams (a numbers runner whom Pietila describes as “Baltimore’s first powerful African American businsessman.”)
The trend of exploitation evolved and endured. “Not in My Neighborhood” draws a parallel between the overt race-baiting of blockbusting and its more insidious modern descendants, the practices of real estate flipping and sub-prime lending.
A Decade of Digging
The scope of Pietila’s research over the past 130 years is dazzling.
Each paragraph of “Not in My Neighborhood” is girded by multiple footnotes that point to committee meeting minutes, notes from conversations with long-dead participants, and Pietila’s own interviews, among countless other sources.
He believes the work he has done to uncover the back-story of Baltimore’s residential segregation is unmatched by scholars in other cities.
“Could similar material exist somewhere? Perhaps,” Pietila says of the book. “But we are talking about events 40 to 60 years ago, so scholars should have uncovered it.”
“It is my hope that my work will spur others to see what happened in their cities.”
Antero Pietila’s “”Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City” published by Ivan R. Dee, is available now at local bookstores, and through amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.
WYPR’s Dan Rodricks will have Pietila on the air to talk about the book on March 1.