On the eve of Simchat Torah and the ALDS, a Baltimore tale with a little holiday sermon thrown in. Shana tovah!
Our story begins in the early 80′s but we’re going to jump ahead to 2006, to a story I told in this very blog, about visiting Baltimore. While there, I walked from my hotel where I was staying as a guest of the lovely Dr. Toad, across downtown Baltimore to the nearest synagogue. I had to do this because I was saying Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, for my mother at that time, and you need to say it with a communal group, or minyan. The area to which I was headed, although I did not know it, is called Jonestown, but it’s not in Guyana, it’s just to the east of the Inner Harbor. While walking there, in 2006 remember, I crossed into something totally unexpected, a new development. I mean, literally, a new development. New rowhouses were being built and green spaces and squares and roads. It was a totally new neighborhood within a city that was three hundred years old and fully developed. I was really thunderstruck and curious. At the time, I was also struck by the synagogue (I wrote about that part in 2006) and how old and beautiful it was and what was it doing right there, just east of the downtown in what seemed like the last place on earth you’d imagine a Jewish neighborhood. Last week, I found out what that neighborhood was and why that synagogue was there through two completely separate means, except that both were through Google. Oh, and clearly, since they did have Google in 2006, I wasn’t curious enough to find out then. Plus, I found out what happened to the thing I haven’t yet mentioned from the early 80′s and how that ties in. Onwards!
(Oh my God, I’m going to mention The Wire again, be warned).
If you know any behind the scenes things about The Wire, you know that the “high rise towers” that get blown up somewhere in, I think, Season 3, were a liberty taken by the producers, and that, in fact, all the “tower” public housing in Baltimore city was demolished before the show even started. But it’s based on the time that David Simon was reporting for the Baltimore Sun and they had those towers then. I think it’s generally acknowledged, and I recommend again “the Pruitt-Igoe Myth” that high-rise housing projects are a big, huge failure and most cities got rid of them. The last ones to be imploded in Baltimore, and this was after I left and stopped paying attention, were called Flag House Courts and they were blown up in 2001 (appropriately on July 4th, as the flag house in that neighborhood is the one where the flag that was “still there” was sewn). I was reading about Flag House Courts, and I can’t remember why, but I found that what replaced the housing project was a new development. A new development in Jonestown. It opened up in 2005 and 2006. So now, six years later, my mystery is solved. It was a new neighborhood built on top of the footprint of the imploded housing project and it was called Albemarle Square.
But what was there before public housing? A slum, according to what I have read. But way before that, it was a Jewish neighborhood and there is still the synagogue and a few delis to let you know that. Almost all the Jews moved away to Northwest Baltimore, which is where I lived right after college. The synagogues went with them. And therein lies Part II of our tale.
When I was a kid, we used to visit Baltimore every year for the holiday which begins tonight, Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah. That’s the one where the cycle of Torah readings, one each week, begins again, and we celebrate that. My mother’s college roommate had moved to Baltimore and we came each year and spent that holiday with her family. Their neighborhood wasn’t in Northwest Baltimore, it was in Baltimore County and the Internet variously calls that area Old Court, Milford Mill, Randallstown, and Pikesville. When I was a tween and teen, I called it Baltimore. This is what I would also call a tale of real estate. Because what’s the first thing you look for? Location, location, location. A new Jewish academy had opened there and lots of Jews thought it would be the place to be. But that didn’t really happen. As I found after college, the Orthodox Jews remained in Northwest Baltimore where they are to this day. The last time I was in the Old Court area was probably 1991. It seems to have gone downhill as a Jewish community since then. How did I find this out? Let’s go to The Google.
While I was looking at things about synagogues in Jonestown, I found the name of our family friends’ synagogue in Old Court. Really? Had it been in Jonestown? Yes! The congregation in the modernish, 60s-esque building I knew from my childhood had originally been located in the city and it dated from the 19th century. Eventually, according to this great site, it moved to Pimlico. And then, the site simply says, it moved to “the county.” I went to Google Maps to look it up, expecting to see the new frontier building I remembered so well, but confusingly, it was an empty, grassy field. What happened? I Googled the synagogue and listings now say, “closed in 2007.”
Here I was going to post a link to a lovely blog post found about the closing of the synagogue, with great pictures, and which told some of the story. And then I realized through little teeny details that it was by the son of my parents’ friends. The Internet is a small place, people! So you will have to do without that, because I am just private enough to not want to send a pingback there. But he, like most people I knew there, moved to the more vibrant northwest in the 90′s. I found other articles, one from 1998 about efforts the synagogue was making to attract more members and another about the closing. The Rabbi, who was a sweet, learned man, and had led the shul since 1952 “refused to comment.”
So here is this synagogue, which began in the 1800′s in the area known as Jonestown/Flag House Courts/Albemarle Square and moved out to Pimlico and then Old Court, and now has had to close (in 2007…. I’m late). I looked up the address of my parents’ friends who we used to visit…. they too moved to the northwest (and their kids live there with their families, too). Sometimes, you just gamble wrong on where the community is going to be.
I think cities live and die, people and communities move, neighborhoods change and change back, and even sports teams relocate. But we adapt and come back. And as the Orioles begin their first postseason in fifteen years, I wish them luck and I hope Baltimore, too, is rejuvenated.
If not, they’ll just fire the mayor and trade all the city council members to the Dodgers.
(Title does NOT come from this song… it’s an instrumental, aside from everything else).
I have mentioned that for me, the song Oberkorn (It’s a small town) reminds me of Baltimore. The song is exactly 30 years old this month. In the comments of a fascinating article about A Broken Frame’s 30th anniversary, someone says of Oberkorn (it was a B-side from that record), “[Depeche Mode] never really touched on that mood before or since.” I think that’s true. It is a strange, wistful mood, and one I love.
I never would have imagined they ever played it live but here it is, hidden in the intro to the far bigger song, “My Secret Garden” from a 1982 concert.