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.



Lee Raskin aka Porsha-mon said...

A great story about growing up in N.W. Baltimore a generation apart. I feel privileged to have known both Gil Sander and David Ettlin...through the legendary Baltimore City College connection. Gil has been so instrumental in reinventing and continuously funding the debate club at City; and David and I share the same 1963 graduating year spirit. Thanks for sharing this wonderful memory. Palmam Qui Meruit Ferat #CityForever!

Doreen Eisenberg said...

You should be so proud of this story, David. I loved getting a glimpse of old Jewish Baltimore. Consider me a new fan of your blog!

Unknown said...

AN entertaining article written by a classmate from years ago. He's still got his edge for painting a beautiful picture with his words. Our lives are enriched by stories written like this.
As solid as the Baltimore City College connection is, this goes beyond that. It's worth the read to all.

Unknown said...

The Ettlin tour continues!

Rhona said...

I also went to LMA School #59, and had Miss Esther. When I tell my grandkids what it was like they can't believe it. I too attended Isaac Davidson...hated It! I remember eating lunch at Sydlins, or Gleimans, and the Library on Keyworth. One Sunday I was brave enough to drive down Oswego to Spruce Drive. What great memories it brought back. Playing jump rope in the street until it got too dark, Jacks on the porch, and games with the rubber pinkie ball. Shirley Avenue looked ok, but I found it depressing. My friends (who I am still in touch with) and I had such good times on Spruce Dr, and now it didn't look happy anymore. Oh how I miss those good old days.

David Ettlin said...

Rhona -- looks like we have lots in common. Now no trace of Sidlen's or Gleiman's -- the latter is occupied as a house across Reisterstown Road from LMAlcott and no longer looks like a little storefront. There is a beautiful but fading mural at Park Heights and Shirley showing a multiracial pyramid of people that I really love. As for IDHS, it was Mrs. Sibel who cured me of religion, at age 11 1/2. I walked out of her fourth-grade class and never again set foot in that Hebrew school. I like what Gilbert emailed me, that I put at the end of my post, about going home again... but to experience what we had requires time travel. I am a co-founder (in 1963) of the Baltimore Science Fiction Society, and on its 50th anniversary (and on its 40th as well) I noted that time travel exists. Unfortunately, I said, it only goes in one direction -- and it happens too fast. Cheers!

Tea Man said...

A classic Ettlin story -- excellent reporting, colorful writing. Memorable personal history. Thanks very much, Dave. Bill Marimow

Mark said...

4202 Reisterstown Road...that was our castle. One block from Towanda where I played all day during the summer (no $ for day camp). Across the street was Fleetway Cab Company and Fleetway Restaurant where they cooked the best fried chicken anywhere. Up the street from me, a few houses, lived Joey Sacco, the Chicken Hop Champion of the Buddy Dean Show. Also went to #59 with Ettlin and a few others. Only remember the guys who played ball...sorry girls. Mr. A (Appleby) was our gym teacher and I still keep in contact with him. He was the Coordinator of Athletics in BCPS and I was an A.D. I need to get back to my house and see if my baseball cards are still hidden in there!

Unknown said...

I also attended school #59 from 1954 to 1960 and had Mrs. Esther for the 1st grade and Mrs Redler for the 6th grade. I also had Mr. Mancuso for the 5th grade who made my life in his class a living hell. My favorite teacher was Mrs. Ross in room Z. She was a dedicated teacher for slow learners. We hardly had any recess or get out on time. Her most used punishment was making a student write the multiplication tables X number of times. I attended City College and then Baltimore Junior College and later worked for the Dept of Defense for 42 years. In 1968, we moved from Park Heights Ave after my father died. My close childhood friend, who lived in the same block, was Saul Reese. I haven't seen him for over 55 years. I would love to hear from anybody who lived in the area.
Daniel aka Danny Goodman

Unknown said...

Mrs. Sibel, who taught at Isaac Davidson, was a very strict teacher but had a good heart. I regret aggravating her with my boyish behavior. She was killed by a truck helping a child cross Reisterstown Road. She didn't deserve dying in such a horrible manner.

Unknown said...

Rosalie Stollof Pilone Palmerino, Marc, You and I have the same memories. My family used to live on Oswego across from Towanda Playground. I remember Dances in the building on Friday nights, and Roller skating in the Basketball Court on Saturday evenings. Danny,You may have known my sister, Beverly Stollof, She has passed away, But the memories are still alive and kicking.