Remembering East Baltimore in the 50s
Those who’ve ever lived in a Baltimore row house may remember scrubbing the front steps with a strong brush and brown soap or Ajax until the stone brightened and the white marble gleamed.
“There was something about the cleanliness of the vestibule,” author Janet Vanik Divel remembers.
“It was pride in ownership, maybe old-fashioned thinking,” but owning a home “was the end of the rainbow,” she said.
Divel, now 83 and living in Tampa Bay, Florida, describes growing up in East Baltimore from the 1950s to 1970s in her memoir, Balto Girl, published last fall.
In an interview with the Beacon, Divel noted how Baltimore has remained in her head and her heart, despite having moved away.
“I was born in Baltimore in 1941 and lived in the same house on North Port Street near Patterson Park for 32 years,” she said. It was “a real neighborhood. All the people there, we all knew the same way of life. We helped each other out when it was needed.”
In her 281-page photo-filled paperback memoir, Divel includes snippets of the poetry she started writing in her 20s. But most of the book is about growing up at a specific time, the 1950s, in a specific place, East Baltimore.
For example, she noted, “As children, we never went to a restaurant. No steamed crabs growing up. It was considered non-essential food at the time.
“But later in life, it was our turn for steamed crabs…Once the bag opened, wow!”
Readers who grew up in 1950s America will relate to Divel’s memories of her teenage years.
“Most of the guys in the neighborhood were either Drapes or Squares. The Drapes were into rock and roll, cool with an attitude, cigarettes, cars, and DA (duck’s behind) hairstyle. Perfect. They would carry combs to fix the ‘do and sometimes switchblades in their back pocket. If they could not afford a leather jacket, the other choice was gabardine or corduroy.”
They were also into tattooing their fingers, Divel recalls, the left hand often spelling out LOVE and the right hand inked with HATE. Metal taps from old tap-dancing pairs were often attached to their shoes.
The girls of the time showed how hip they were by rolling down their bobby socks, worn with ballerina slippers and a pencil skirt cinched with an elastic belt.
Balto Girl also mentions the Orioles of that time — not the pennant-winning, playoff-losing baseball team, but “one of the most successful and prominent earliest, vocal harmony groups for the doo-wop sound.”
Who over the age of 70 doesn’t remember 1953’s “Crying in the Chapel” with Sonny Til as the lead singer of the Orioles?
Recalling the racism
Divel’s book also recounts a disgraceful side of the Baltimore broadcasting scene when the highly popular “Buddy Deane Show” was taking off on television.
The variety show wanted to feature integrated audiences as well as black artists. Owner Westinghouse Broadcasting Co. thought it might cause a revolution or perhaps something worse to show black and white kids dancing together, so an all-black episode aired weekly. John Waters’ popular movie Hairspray was inspired by these events and is a fictionalized account of what happened.
In her book, Divel includes an interesting note about the Deane broadcasts. When Baltimore native and Academy Award-winning director Barry Levinson requested footage from the TV show for his Baltimore-set film Diner, he was told by the TV station that no footage survived.
And it was the love for her family that motivated young Divel to actually skip high school so she could take a job as a clerk in the Muskin shoe factory on Greenmount Avenue for a salary in 1950 of some $20 a week.
“My family consisted of my mother and two younger brothers, one handicapped, and we needed my salary from the shoe factory to keep everybody together,” Divel said.
How did she feel about missing high school? “I hated [to do] it,” she said, noting that she achieved a high school equivalency diploma at age 34 and has since taken college courses in physics and biology.
Divel visits Baltimore as often as she can. “We still have friends and relatives that we visit in the city, and I miss living in Baltimore greatly,” Divel said. “We have tried to move back two or three times over the years, but life interfered.”
For instance, just before one considered return, her husband, William, got a job offer in Florida in his work as a construction foreman that he couldn’t turn down.
Divel has heard about, read about, and seen some dismaying changes in her
onetime Charm City, the nickname for Baltimore devised by ad agencies during the 1960s mayoral reign of William Donald Schaffer.
Does Divel have any suggestions that might brighten the days and safeguard the nights for Baltimoreans once again?
“I always thought [it helps] if people had something they owned — a responsibility, like their own home; something affordable, like the row houses of yesterday. And there were factories throughout the city — that was how the middle class was born. And I feel [affordable housing and good jobs] may be one of the answers to a very complex question.”
In other words, she said, it may still be possible to regain the past — or at least recognize its power. Divel ends her book with a poem she wrote, containing this line: “Yesterday is who you are.”