Our Haunting Past Veteran Scribe Chases Ghosts to Explain Baltimore

0
87

Antero Pietila came to The Baltimore Sun newsroom as a young reporter in 1969, when the Orioles enjoyed a 109-win season that year, but there was little else to cheer about. Just for starters, the city still bore ugly scars from a year earlier when simmering racial tensions exploded following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.: Three days of rioting saw six people killed, more than 5,000 arrested, and some 1,000 businesses looted or burned.

“It was a very dispirited city,” Pietila recalls. “There had been several decades of white flight to the suburbs. Now businesses had also begun moving, and the department stores were failing. But I was interested in everything Baltimore — everything American. It was all foreign to me.”

And he means that literally, for the neophyte reporter plunked down in a city riven by racial division was a native of Finland, one of the most homogenous countries on earth. “There were no blacks living in Finland at that time,” Pietila says of his childhood. Unperturbed, he hit the streets, with beats taking him from cops to City Hall to schools — every corner of the city. His dream of being an overseas correspondent was achieved in 1980 when The Sun sent him to South Africa for three years, followed by five years in the Soviet Union.

After retiring 2004, Pietila realized his adopted home still held mysteries. “There were a lot of things that I could not figure out or that people did not want to talk about,” he says. “For instance, why Bolton Hill is a white neighborhood when it’s surrounded by black neighborhoods?” He decided to keep exploring “what made Baltimore tick,” which resulted in 2010’s “Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City.” The book makes a clear case that our de facto civic apartheid wasn’t by accident, but the result of decades of public laws, private sector decisions and garden- variety prejudice — legalized segregation, redlining, blockbusting and all the rest.

Pietila doesn’t credit his outsider status as a Finn for making him such a keen chronicler of a prickly racial history. He chalks it up to a natural curiosity. A need to understand. And that’s what sent him back into research mode for “The Ghosts of Johns Hopkins: The Life and Legacy that Shaped an American City,” debuting this month.

Don’t let the book title confuse you — warts-and-all Baltimore is the star here. “It is an attempt to explain the complexities of Baltimore with Johns Hopkins the man or the institutions always in the background,” Pietila says. Of course, it opens with the flinty Quaker bachelor businessman with a grade school education. For reasons unknown, Johns Hopkins destroyed his personal papers leaving biographers scrambling for information. He grew up in a slave-holding Maryland household but became an abolitionist — though one pragmatic enough to freely associate and do business with those who kept slaves. “He thought that making money was his mission in life,” Pietila says. Hopkins sold everything from whiskey to bat guano before retiring from merchant life to assume a leadership role with the B&O Railroad and further amass the philanthropic fortune that would immortalize his name.

Given the author’s curiosities, racial matters loom large in the text. We learn how in the early years of last century, many civic leaders and Hopkins folks, such as med-school dean and public health pioneer Dr. William Howell became enamored with the eugenics movement and its crude scientific theories used to sanctify white supremacy. Jews faced headwinds, too. In the early 1940s, Johns Hopkins University implemented a quota on Jewish students (10 percent rising later to 17 percent) just as most prominent colleges were scrapping theirs. What’s more, Baltimore’s Jewish leaders were largely mum on the matter. “The big names in the city’s Jewish community were mostly German Jews, and they could get their sons into Hopkins more easily than others,” Pietila says. “So, it was a case of don’t rock the boat.”

The latter third of the book is arranged under the heading “Pushing Out the Lumpenproletariat” and essentially deals with Hopkins institutions rising to world prominence within a city heading in the other direction — “islands of excellence in a city that rewards mediocrity and increasingly exhibits Third World dysfunctions,” as Pietila puts it. By the 1960s, locals called the East Baltimore campus the “The Plantation,” and soon Hopkins leaders were even talking about bailing out of Baltimore, maybe to the emerging suburban community of Columbia. “I have not been able to figure out how close they came to that decision, but it was something that was discussed,” Pietila says. But through the decades, the fallback solution was simpler: “push out” the poor and powerless.

Hopkins-related or otherwise, amazing factoids leap from most every page. Did you know Liberia has a Maryland County as a vestige of the Baltimore-based Maryland Colonization Society and its 1830s efforts to settle freed slaves there? Or that police kept tabs on hippie happenings in the early ’70s through the staff photographer at the counterculture newspaper Harry, who was actually a police academy graduate and spy? You might have heard that Hopkins did some pioneering sex-change operations, but were you aware that one of their transgender patients later danced on the block as the Million Dollar Baby? Does the name Donald Pomerleau mean anything to you — the city police commissioner from 1966 to 1981 who employed East German- level surveillance techniques and once referred to women as “little balls of fluff in the eyes of the Creator?”

So many names march across the pages, the famous and the infamous, the notable and the notorious. Woven together, their lives create our civic tapestry: “Little Willie” Adams, Irvin Kovens, Clarence “Du” Burns, Warren Hart, Chick Webb, Mary Elizabeth Garrett, Leonard “Boogie” Weinglass, James Rouse, William Donald Schaefer, Blaze Star, Jack Pollack, Henrietta Lacks, Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, Alger Hiss. For Pietila, writing this personality-filled book was tantamount to a civic duty. “We are in the midst of a generational change,” he says. “Names like William Donald Schaefer and Don Pomerleau may have no meaning to lots of people in Baltimore and elsewhere. Like ‘Not in My Neighborhood,’ ‘The Ghosts’ is a primer on Baltimore. It is a book that everyone needs to read who wants to understand Baltimore so that in our discussions we operate from the same base of information.”

“David Simon said to me in an email that this [book] seems like your testament, and in a way it is,” the veteran scribe concludes. “It’s all that I learned about this city, the place I know best of all of the cities that I have lived in.”

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here