Voices of Lombard Street: A Century of Change in East Baltimore

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Rebecca Sinel

Published on December 30, 2010

  • Description:

    The Jewish Museum of Maryland and the two synagogues on either side of it stand on a small side street off of Lombard, a street lined with run-down and vacant buildings. After my friend and I were warmly welcomed at the museum’s front desk, we were eager to visit Voices of Lombard Street: A Century of Change in East Baltimore, wondering just how far this neighborhood had fallen since the late 19th and early 20th centuries when it was a haven for newcomers to Baltimore.

    Approaching the exhibit entrance I immediately noticed large black-and-white photographs of families that covered the wall straight ahead, drawing me in to the personal stories I was about to encounter. The voices documented throughout the exhibit tell a story of the immigrant experience in East Baltimore, focusing on the early Jewish settlers and including select voices of the Italian and African American people who also lived in the area. Throughout the exhibit I read most of the wall text along with the quotes; however it was clear that visitors could simply read the quotes and still understand the exhibit narrative.

    I could hear a faint sound in the distance and took a mental note to find its source later on in my visit. Backtracking to the left my friend and I each picked up a copy of a scavenger hunt to take through the exhibit; although it was a good conversation starter and probably great for young visitors, we abandoned it after just a few stops as we became engrossed in the exhibit. Against the wall was a case with a large photograph of a crowded steamship along with the few personal effects that an immigrant might bring to America, including a suitcase, passport, and tea kettle. Returning to the entrance wall, a closer look at the photographs, an early map of the city, and small panels with quotes from the people of Lombard Street oriented me to the exhibit.

    A helpful sign indicated that I should start my visit to the left. There was a brick façade with iconic Baltimore marble steps and an archway, which represented the entrance to a traditional Jewish row house from the early 1900s. I felt as though I were stepping into a real living room, complete with pink floral wall paper, wooden fireplace, and round dining table where visitors could sit and read a replica newspaper. A large cut-out of a family photograph stood behind a steamer trunk filled with pillow cases made out of flour sacks. The room was filled, fittingly, with the voices of the people who would have lived there, telling stories of paying Italian kids to turn the lights on during the Sabbath and the total lack of privacy that resulted from cramming multiple generations into one small house. Tucked in a closet was a claw-foot tub and quotes about the gefilte fish that swam in it until it was time to prepare them for dinner.

    The next room, with Singer sewing machines and fabric scraps strewn across the floor, told the story of the garment industry that employed many Baltimore immigrants. I sat at one of the sewing machine tables as I looked at the old tailor’s box and read about the factories and sweatshops, along with the labor unions that were established to help improve working conditions. This experiential display, like others in the exhibit, was a creative way to provide visitors with a place to rest while feeling even more immersed in the story.

    The sound of chickens and people talking, that I had heard faintly earlier, drew me to an alley, replete with clothesline and laundry above and reproduction outhouse. Not only were the alleys places for children to play, they were also where chickens were slaughtered by the dozens, blood and feathers covering the sides of the buildings. The voices in this section confused me at first because some told about the segregation among children of different ethnicities, while others told about children playing together happily. Ultimately they represented the complex and sometimes contradictory nature of history.

    The exhibit wound out of the alley into a long space. On one side was the story of Jewish social life, including the activities of the Jewish Educational Alliance (JEA), which provided services to immigrants and helped keep children off the streets. A scrapbook, theater posters, large synagogue window, and JEA banners brought the space to life. The ambient noise became even louder, making me feel as though I were outside on a bustling street, a far cry from what Lombard Street sounds like now. On the other side of the room were objects and photographs that told the story of the markets and shops that once lined the street. I could imagine the people from the photographs coming to life, selling me their goods, asking about my family. One quote that was particularly arresting was by an African American boy who said that his classmates became good at math because they were allowed to run the store register when their fathers, the store owners, were not around. This boy was only ever allowed to sweep the floor. I couldn’t help but think about these inequities that persist today.

    At this point the story of Lombard Street began to change. With fewer artifacts and more text I learned that by the 1930s and ’40s successful Jewish immigrants moved out of the slums of East Baltimore and developed new neighborhoods in the northwest part of the city. African Americans moved into the vacated and deteriorating houses. A floor to ceiling photograph showed men in suits breaking ground at the construction site of Flag House Courts, the high-rise public housing complexes that opened in 1955 where the old row homes once stood.

    A sign for Attman’s Deli welcomed visitors to enter a glass-enclosed space and sit down at the table to peruse old menus. Speakers quietly (almost too quietly to hear) played the stories of people who frequented the establishment, which was founded in 1915. Attman’s, an historical landmark that is still open today, seemed misplaced here and perhaps would have been better appreciated at the beginning or end of the exhibit’s bustling marketplace.

    After exiting the deli I read the voices from the 1960s onward. The 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. brought ongoing violence to the area. The violence, along with the deterioration of the public housing, working families leaving for the suburbs, crime, and rampant drug use changed the neighborhood landscape. A pile of crumbling bricks illustrated the deterioration of the neighborhood. In 2001 the Flag House Courts were demolished to make way for developments with row-house style homes, both subsidized and owner-occupied. Voices from residents again indicated the complexity of the situation; some were happy to see Flag House gone, a sign of hopeful change, while others saw Flag House as their home that was taken away from them.

    The exhibition closed with a nice summation of the “century of change” that took place around Lombard Street, from the early immigrants and vibrant marketplaces to public housing encircled by violence. The concerns of the people who have lived here over the past 100 years became my concerns as their struggles were revealed and humanized through their voices. The voices were so personal that my friend and I were compelled to share our own personal histories with each other. Perhaps a medium where unaccompanied visitors could also share their voices would have made the exhibit even more dynamic. The exhibit leaves us with the question, “Will Lombard Street once again become the heart and soul of a thriving urban neighborhood?” I suppose the new voices of Lombard Street, and time, will tell.

Latest Comments (1)

very good review

by Kathleen Mclean - January 02, 2011

and of a place I haven’t heard much about before. This sounds like the exhibition creators did a great job of making the stories accessible and come to life. Thank you.

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