Thursday, February 9, 2017

Going home again

                   Gilbert Sandler's birthplace and childhood home on Cottage Avenue

An adventure back in time
with a Baltimore storyteller

There's no place like home, but it sure has changed

William Smith is living in my sixth-grade classroom. The place where teacher Rebecca Redler once presided over the learning of some three dozen 11-year-olds, a very long time ago.

I met Mr. Smith today because of Gilbert Sandler, with whom I share the experience of having attended Baltimore's old Louisa May Alcott School No. 59 -- a generation apart. We both recently celebrated birthdays: Gilbert is 94, while I turned 71.

Gilbert's Facebook photo
Gilbert is one of my heroes. although we never really met socially until today -- excluding a couple of brief conversations during literary events at which some of his collections of Baltimore stories were being sold. He's a remarkable man, and at his age not only has all of his marbles but probably more than I do. He's well-known locally for the brief Baltimore stories he spins weekly on the public radio station WYPR.

We've been Facebook friends for a couple of years, and last week I sent him the usual birthday greeting -- wishing him 364 very merry unbirthdays to follow. He responded by inviting me to lunch. (He seems to think of me as a distinguished journalist for having survived 40 years at the Baltimore Sun, including a stint as night metro editor, before escaping with a buyout nearly a decade ago.)

Over pancakes at Miss Shirley's restaurant near his Roland Park Place seniors community apartment, we shared experiences of growing up roughly a mile apart in Northwest Baltimore, our memories of downtown when it was a place people went to shop (the department stores there are long dead) and where my father worked selling men's clothing. I showed him a few old photos of my father Ben Ettlin -- including his 1931-issued taxicab driver identification, and his many "weddings" as the groom in 1940s Hutzler Bros. department store bridal fashion shows.

Then I suggested we take a drive to the old neighborhood, and see if we could take a peek inside our elementary school, since converted to low-income senior housing, at the corner of Keyworth Avenue and Reisterstown Road -- and where, a generation apart, we had the same first-grade teacher, Esther Freilachoff (the daughter of a Russian-born Hebrew scholar, she taught for half a century -- mostly at Louisa May Alcott -- and died in 1989 at the age of 91).

But first I wanted to show Gilbert the house where I grew up at 3424 Royce Avenue, below St. Ambrose Church. I drove him across a decaying stretch of Park Heights Avenue (an area nearly a mile south of the famed Pimlico Race Course) and turned onto Woodland Avenue.

 There was an old decaying row house in the once-largely-Jewish neighborhood there that had a Star of David ornamentation on the side of a lower roof. But the house I had last seen a year ago was gone -- it and the rest of its row of dead and nearly-dead dwellings demolished and hauled away. It was a vacant lot, among many vacant lots where houses once stood on nearby Homer, Virginia and DuPont avenues. And evidence of a few other felled houses in the area remained as piles of rubble.

I drove down St. Ambrose Avenue, noticing a house which I thought was where one of my childhood friends lived back in the 1950s. It was vacant and boarded. I turned left into a narrow alley and pointed out the rickety back porch of a still-occupied house where, way back when, I played Monopoly with friends including Marsha Rofsky, whose family had owned it.

At the end of the alley we reached Ground Zero of my childhood, Royce Avenue -- where it appeared every one of the brick row houses was still occupied, and in relatively good shape.

Me on my trike, and my late brother, in front of 3424 Royce.
 On the odd-side corner facing us was the Landsman house, residence in those days of Baltimore's first Jewish police lieutenant, his Catholic wife, and their dozen or so kids (two of whom became homicide shift commanders in the same city police department). And a few doors up on the even side was my house, where the old concrete steps had been replaced  but the slate roof seemed worn and in need of repair. I should have brought along the picture of my Russian-Ukrainian grandmother sitting in its porch, holding the baby me.

We headed south about eight blocks along  Reisterstown Road, and Gilbert excitedly pointed to the old school rising into view. We passed Shirley Avenue, where we both had attended (and dropped out of without telling our parents) the old Isaac Davidson Hebrew School (it was vacant when, as I recall, an arsonist finally dispatched the building). And in another short block I turned left onto Keyworth and parked outside the entrance to the building now named Alcott Place. (Gilbert pronounces it All-Cot, while I say Owl-Cot.)

I had him sit in the warm car, out of the wind, as I approached the steps down into the ground-level entranceway. The door was locked, but a resident opened it -- and with no one at the reception desk, kindly waited for me to get Gilbert and let us in. Then another resident arrived, William Smith, and I introduced us -- me, a graduate from 1957, and Gilbert in Louisa May Alcott's mid-year February Class of 1934.

The ground floor was a lot different from our school days -- the huge (by kid standards) gymnasium and the group bathrooms (in Gilbert's day, the boys' side including a long group urinal with water cascading down its back wall) were gone, replaced by a few apartments.

 Then we rode the elevator (there was none in our days -- its shaft and an adjoining stairway were carved right through the first-floor principal's office in the building's overhaul for housing)  to the third floor, where Mr. Smith's apartment is located. It is, by my memory, the very classroom of the late Mrs. Redler where I last sat in June of '57, but now a spacious efficiency apartment.

Mr. Smith, a deceptively young-looking 71, happily showed us his home, then took us up another elevator -- one that runs between the third and fourth floors. There was no fourth floor back in our school days, but the high-ceiling space between its old exposed structural beams had a bright, new wooden floor, with a group meeting, party and sitting space, and spacious work center with computer stations for the residents.

I had visited Alcott Place maybe 15 or 20 years ago, and remembered the blackboards that had been removed from classrooms and reinstalled along the hallways. Someone had used multi-colored chalk to draw beautiful religious scenes on them. But now the drawings, sadly, were gone; a couple had what at a glance appeared to be announcements in large white chalk lettering.

But the building was immaculately clean, and a serene space within a neighborhood that otherwise appears Third-Worldly in its decay.

Gilbert was leery about it, but I wanted to drive by his old house a few blocks away on Cottage Avenue. He worried that it had become the kind of place where people get shot, but I was assuring -- it was daylight, after all, and the bad stuff more likely happens after dark.

We rode south on Park Heights Avenue and turned left on Ulman Avenue -- and there on our left side near the corner was a huge memorial of balloons, spent candles and a fashionable black derby hat, the kind of display that crops up at murder scenes in much of the city. Indeed, a peek at my old newspaper's online archive turned up the grim confirmation that a 25-year-old man had been fatally shot there six days earlier.

Ulman leads into Cottage Avenue where, as I had earlier on St. Ambrose and Royce avenues, Gilbert pointed out houses and the names of childhood pals who had lived in them in the 1930s.

Then we reached 3608 Cottage Avenue, a brick mid-row house with a white-shingled bow upper floor outcropping with three windows. Behind it was a room that had special meaning for my friend. "I was born in that bedroom," Gilbert said.

The tall windows and front door were boarded with heavy plywood, the house -- like countless thousands of others in this city -- vacant.

Then we headed back to Roland Park Place, wondering about whether one really can ever go home again.

Gilbert emailed me later this wisdom: "You can indeed go home again. You just have to understand the journey. And time and change."

Gilbert Sandler is a Navy veteran of the Pacific campaign in World War II, and earned his bachelor's degree in 1949 from the University of Pennsylvania and an MLA from Johns Hopkins University in 1967. Among other adventures, he has had careers in advertising, public relations and freelance writing, and is the founder, benefactor and proud booster of an award-winning debating program at his high school, City College. He is the author of the books "The Neighborhood,"  "Baltimore Glimpses Revisited," "Jewish Baltimore," "Small Town Baltimore," and "Wartime Baltimore."

You can listen to some of his Baltimore Glimpses radio stories at the old WYPR web site

(Addenda: Gilbert died nearly two years after our tour, at the age of 95.)


Below is a photo gallery of the annual May Day celebration on the playfield at School 59 -- these taken in 1951 when my brother was a sixth-grader there, and I was in kindergarten.

Dancing around the May pole. In the background, houses on Park Heights Ave.
That's me in the School 59 T-shirt, and my mother (pre-nosejob) in the dark glasses behind my Royce Avenue friend Howard Gersch and his mother

May Day was a big deal in those days at city elementaries.

And for many kids, it was a costume-dressy event.