"Oh-ho, say can you see . . ."
Dull green with yellow tips, the hefty cranes up on towers cluster, sporting the markings of Bethlehem Steel. Amid them, incongruously, are nestled the white-tipped black yardarms of a three-masted sailing ship, the U.S.S. Constellation.
"By the dawn's early light . . ."
From the top of a rise in the lush park, the eye slowly pans the horizon. The park is on a sharp point of land guarding the harbor, which surrounds it on all sides. The view is of brick smokestacks and white and black water towers. Across the harbor over to the left, a tall, blocky gray tower with the look of a grain elevator is actually a storage place for concrete. LEHIGH CEMENT, it says on the side. A real grain elevator, its tall cylinders bound together like a monstrous six-pack, looms in the other direction, dwarfing the crab apple trees of Fort McHenry.
"What so proudly we hailed . . ."
Actually, dozens of cranes spike the horizon, a closer examination reveals. The Maryland Shipbuilding and Drydock yard over to the right has its collection, as does the Dundalk Marine Terminal, and many more belong to industries even lifelong residents can't readily identify from this perspective. The Francis Scott Key Bridge, a businesslike crisscross of steel, carries the Baltimore Beltway over the wide water. The smoky black, coal-dust-covered pier, much the worse for wear, belongs to Consolidated Coal. It had once helped fuel the industrial behemoth that was the envy of the world - the gritty cities of North America's industrial Northeast. Now, the pier needs a lot of work.
“At the twilight's last gleaming . . .”
The Continental soldiers march with great precision, in their blue swallowtailed coats with red trim and gold buttons. Their pants and leggings are as white as the George Washington wigs under their three-cornered hats. Pennants are layered as thick as palm fronds over one of the flags they carry. The pennants say things like CENTRAL BURMA, 1945. Where and why, exactly, was the battle for central Burma? The wool costumes look hot in the bright June sun. The fireboat for the inner harbor fires tall jets of high-pressure water into the cloudless sky. Tarnished red and silver trailer boxes lie nearby like so many building blocks for a colossus, stacked and waiting for the containerized ocean freighter that is riding high in the water of the Chesapeake Bay as it heaves to.
"Oh say does tha-hat Star Spangled . . ."
The crowd in the park listening to the contralto belt it out is an extremely diverse lot. Orientals. Blacks. Surprising number of redheads. Uncommon quantities of adults under five and a half feet tall, with pinched smiles and gnarled hands. Virtually the entire history of the migrations that have made up North America is written on their faces. The neighborhood just behind Fort McHenry is Locust Point. Surrounding the Locust Point Marine Terminal, it is the classic northeastern ethnic enclave. The front stoops of the row houses are polished white, gleaming from repeated scrubbings on hands and knees with soapy water and a stiff brush. "These Germans and Polacks here in Locust Point," the mayor of Baltimore had said earlier, "they think they're independent of the city. They're not poor. They have a lot of pride. You don't do anything down here without asking them. It's a pain in the ass."
“Ba-NER-her ye-het wa-ha-ha-have . . . “
Over the star-shaped old squat brick fort, a replica of an old flag was being raised. In the Indian summer of 1814, in retaliation for North Americans torching Toronto, British imperial forces had burned the White House in Washington, forty miles south of here, and were then zeroing in on the crucial fledgling industry of the port city of Baltimore. The commandant of the fort that stood between the fleet and the city was casting about for a very specific symbol of defiance. "It is my desire," he wrote, archly, "to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance." So he ordered a banner sewn thirty feet hoist by forty-two feet fly, spangled with fifteen five-pointed stars, each two feet across, and fifteen stripes. Its exact duplicate, being raised this day, is one huge flag.
"O'er the la-hand of the FREE . . ."
The p.a. system screeches on the word "free." It always does. There doesn't seem to be a p.a. system made that can deal with that high E flat. The British today are having no difficulty seeing this Star Spangled Banner. Nor are the Hungarians, the French, the Vietnamese, the Italians, the Jamaicans, the Lithuanians, the Ecuadorians . . . The British, as a matter of fact, are out in force this fine Flag Day. In a park on the shores farther into the harbor, they are holding a Celtic-Scandinavian ethnic festival. Other flags are flying there - from the yellow cross on the blue field of Sweden, to the fierce red dragon of Wales. In fact, the harbor was again being invaded, but this time it was by forty-foot serpent-headed long boats, their Viking crews brandishing padded swords. Swedes, Norwegians, and ethnic Finns attacked; Scots, Welsh, and Irish defended. When the warriors got thirsty, they drank a sweet, cold, potent pear wine imported from England.
"And the home . . . of the . . . BRAAAAAVE."
Bravery, as it happens, was the topic of discussion later in the day, as William Donald Schaefer toured his city in the long green Fleetwood with the license plates that simply said MAYOR. In addition to his driver, he traveled with Gary Mitchell, a double-knit aide who looked like an administrative assistant and sometimes functioned as one, but who really was there on special detachment from Baltimore's Tac Squad - the equivalent of a SWAT team. Formerly with the elite police helicopter branch, in which he had thrown spotlights into bleak alleys from the safety of the air, he now traveled with a .38 under his plaid-jacketed shoulder, and the knowledge that the mayor of a northeastern city wades into some fairly strange crowds.
Actually, the conversation was not about bravery per se. It was about windows.
In the Union Square neighborhood, where H. L. Mencken, "the sage of Baltimore," once lived, there is a "shopsteading" program. Shopsteading is a spin-off of Baltimore's "homesteading" plan. In northeastern urban homesteading, gutted aged town-houses, which are in no condition to support decent human life but whose sturdy brick walls are still so structurally sound that it seems a shame just to bulldoze them, are sold by the city for a dollar and some promises. The homesteaders who acquire these charming old shells, which today would cost a fortune to build from scratch, agree to fix the houses up - they frequently have to replace the plumbing and heating systems, the plaster, and sometimes even the roof - and then actually live in them for at least a few years.
The houses are available for a dollar because their previous owners have abandoned them - been scared off - and they've fallen into the hands of the city in a tax sale.
The deal, when it works right, usually boils down to this:
The city marks out a neighborhood that it thinks ripe for resuscitation. It attempts to stretch its overtaxed social services so that the entire neighborhood can be turned around by these homesteaders. It knows from bitter experience that only one or two rehabbed houses in a block won't do the trick. The whole block has to be attacked for critical social change to occur. So the designated neighborhood, at least in Baltimore, gets an extra dose of police protection, and the city code inspectors make a special effort to lean on property owners who are not bringing their places up to the new standards. Street fairs and ethnic festivals are encouraged, with the city providing bandstands and roping off streets to automobile traffic so that pedestrians can wander.
In exchange, a young couple with no chance of being able to afford a more conventional first home in a tight, spiraling real estate market, promise to invest their sweat, and possibly risk their personal safety, rehabilitating a row house in a tough, but presumably not hopeless, part of a city that suburbanites and people who have moved to Oregon have generally written off as irrevocably declining.
There is no question that the neighborhoods involved are tough. The edge of the rehabbed areas, where they fade off into hard-core slums, is commonly referred to as the "frontier." If the neighborhood once again becomes livable, and an adjacent area becomes newly attractive to homesteaders, the process is referred to as "pushing back the frontier." The nastier inhabitants on the wrong side of the frontier are called "the Indians."
Obviously, a certain number of these phrases are blatantly racist code words. But by no means is that the whole story. A good number of the people who get these $1.00 houses and fix them up are themselves black. Furthermore, since the people who homestead have committed themselves actually to living in these neighborhoods, they're betting their bodies that a pluralistic, northeastern urban society can be attractive, profitable, possible, and fun.
Now, in the Union Square shopsteading program, for $100 folk get not just a row house, but a two- or three-story building, the top floors of which offer lavish living area as well as the ground floor for some mom-and-pop retail establishment. When the work on the structure is completed, theoretically the couple wind up with both a place to live and a place in which to earn their living.
On West Baltimore Street, holes have been drilled in the middle of the sidewalk, with steel posts firmly cemented into them. From the posts are hung chain-link fencing, mean-looking barbed wire, and a sign saying all this is the work of William Donald Schaefer, mayor, and the city of Baltimore. Behind this makeshift fort, offering night protection from the Indians, dozens of shopsteaders hammer and buzz-saw away, hauling out wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of rotted timber and powdered plaster.
A word about Schaefer: A bachelor in his fifties, Schaefer lives with his mother, Tulula, although "lives with" is somewhat misleading, since his city hall office includes a much-used cot, and he spends inordinate amounts of time, nights and weekends included, personally seeing after his city. Schaefer is a blond, freckled teetotaler of German extraction with almost transparent green-blue eyes. He has a permanent battle with his waistline, made infinitely more difficult by the ethnic festivals his city sponsors at which he finds pressed on him endless crepes, perogies, and lasagna.
Schaefer is an upfront admirer of the late Richard J. Daley and of Frank Rizzo, the former bosses of Chicago and Philadelphia, respectively. As he indefatigably prowls through the city in the back seat of his limousine, he whips out multisheet forms that are labeled "Executive Action Memos." At the top of each sheet is printed the list of the perhaps thirty people at the heights of the city's administration. There is a little box next to each name. Whenever Schaefer sees anything in his city that frosts him, he checks off the name of the department head who will soon wish that he had seen it first, and then scrawls in longhand, as the car tools on, a description of, for example, the grafitti on an overpass that Schaefer wants to see painted over, and yesterday. He then checks off how long the department head has to respond to the memo. The longest period is two weeks, and frequently he checks the box next to "Immediately." When he gets back to city hall, these memos are logged, numbered, and shipped to the offending executive. A copy is retained by an old Prussian, who is a retired utility engineer. His job, for which he is paid next to nothing, is largely to make sure that if an action memo demands a response in two days, by the beard of St. Nicholas, a response is produced in two days. The habits this kind of system instills in city workers can be awesome to behold. At ten o'clock one Saturday morning, a mayor's aide received a call from the organizers of a dedication ceremony at a neighborhood "multiservice" center. More people were showing up at the festivities than had been anticipated, and there were not enough folding chairs. The aide made one call. At 10:56, one yellow truck, number 2737, Department of Public Works, Bureau of Operations, showed up at that center on North Dukeland Street, two miles west of city hall, in the predominantly black Rosemont neighborhood. It had two workers in orange and yellow reflector vests, who worked with a will to unload and set up a hundred more blue folding chairs.
In some northeastern cities on a weekend morning, you can't call 911 and get the police to show up in fifty-six minutes flat, much less get a hundred folding chairs and a work crew. And, unlike some of the old-line mayors and Maryland politicians he admires, Schaefer has never been accused of corruption; more-over, he seems to exercise his capacity for repressive totalitarianism only on political allies, opponents, and newspaper reporters - all of whom probably can be considered fair game. Across the pillars of the rehabbed Rosemont neighborhood center marked by clean new plate glass, sandblasted and repointed turn-of-the-century brick, and marvelous old turrets, hung a banner whose message seemed to be heartfelt (in 1979, Schaefer ran without significant opposition). In the city's colors of black and yellow (not very different from the black and orange of the city's beloved baseball team, the Orioles), it read: WELCOME MAYOR SCHAEFER.
Anyway, this Saturday afternoon - after attending the neighborhood multipurpose center dedication, the Celtic-Scandinavian festival, the Flag Day ceremonies at Fort McHenry, and yet other activities, such as the French ethnic festival, a rummage sale at the 125-year-old Light Street Presbyterian Church, and a south Baltimore street fair in which he responded to a man who wanted to help keep the city clean by issuing an Executive Action Memo directing a city department to deliver the fellow a broom - Schaefer had thoroughly exhausted the men twenty years his junior who had tried to keep up with his pace. Now, the mayor, a nondrinker, found himself on West Baltimore Street in the Union Square neighborhood inside the New Deal Bar.
"My goodness," he said. "I never thought I'd live to see the day that I'd find myself inside the New Deal Bar."
Joann Whitely, a thirty-six-year-old with dark hair and dirt smudges on her face, showed the mayor the work she, her husband, and their renovation crew had done on the bar they'd recently bought. She nearly burst with pride. Here were the murals they were preserving. "During the forties," she explained later, "a man came into the bar and could not pay, and in lieu of funds, he painted the murals. It took him almost a year. Apparently he'd run up an extremely high bill."
The long-forgotten alcoholic genius had painted what he saw around the bar, and what he saw was so raunchy that Whitely carefully steered the mayor away from some of the more colorful paeans to pimps and whores. Baltimore magazine in the late seventies, before Whitely took it over, conferred on the New Deal Bar the awesome title "The Worst Bar in Baltimore."
"During the war," Whitely said, "the servicemen were barred from going on the premises. It was really that bad. It was the place where narcotics were trafficked. There were some murders in the New Deal. There were rapes. Yes, within the last few years this all happened. In fact, when we first bought it, one day I walked toward the back of the bar and these two guys were firing up right outside the bathroom. Yes, shooting up. Heroin. In fact, the liquor- board would not allow us to use the name New Deal Two. They just wanted the name New Deal completely gone from the memory of everyone in Baltimore. So we're going to call it Heathen Days, after one of Mencken's books."
Whitely proudly showed the mayor the long oak bar she and her husband had discovered and moved in, and the fine brass rails on which the future would place its feet. She discussed the oak ice box with beveled mirrors and ornate brass trim that was coming in next. She mentioned that the couple will have sunk $105,000 into the bar by the time it reopens. She pointed out the "amenities," like the fireplace halfway up the wall, and the carefully carved wooden detail along the roofline. "Where else could you get detail like that?" she asked.
I looked out at West Baltimore Street. I was glad I was traveling not alone, but with the mayor and Mitchell, with his concealed .38. There was a faded arrow labeled "Eddie's Lunch." An old barber shop sign hung half off its hinges, its twirling glass completely smashed. Al's Billiard Supply was boarded up, its sign flaking. Citywide TV Sales & Service sat there with its front covered by grilles of steel. M. Hess Luncheonette was abandoned. Drifters ambled past with no particular place to go.
"Doesn't this neighborhood ever scare you?" I later asked Whitely.
"Aren't you afraid of being raped?"
"No. I can't explain it, but I feel a closeness to this entire neighborhood. Union Square is very special to me, because when I was growing up I saw a neighborhood - West Fayette Street - die, and I think within me there was a psychological need. We saw a neighborhood go from a solid one to a ghetto. A lot of the families moved out after the war. It became a tenant area. It integrated too quickly; then the state and the city started condemning properties for the expansion of the University of Maryland. Buildings began to be boarded up. And once that started there was no return.
"The crime rate increased. Everything started to fall apart. My father died on West Fayette Street, the six hundred block, in nineteen sixty-six. The day my father died, it was unbelievable, because here was this little house that was set back with fig trees and roses in the front yard. And then the state came in and took over, and today the new dental school stands where my home was."
And now Whitely is in the middle of the West Baltimore Street shopsteading area, attacking the worst bar in Baltimore with a crowbar. She paid considerably more than the token $100 to the city for her building, because, as much as the cops might have wished it, the New Deal had not been abandoned. But all around her, up and down the block, carpenters and masons who had made such a deal were at work restoring storefronts that would soon become an ice cream parlor, a unisex hair salon, a quickie printing shop, a self-service laundry, a silk-screen shop, an upholsterer's operation, a delicatessen, an architect's office, a tax consultant's, a constructions firm's.
In the course of conversation, Whitely casually mentioned the burglaries, robberies, muggings, and lootings that occur from time to time on West Baltimore Street. "I'm not afraid to live here," she said. "A lot of people can't understand that, but Baltimore Street is the last frontier to be conquered out here. Until Baltimore Street is turned around in terms of physical appearance and being a viable business corridor, we'll never make it." She really wanted to tell the mayor about the piece de resistance of the new bar, and this is how the subject of windows and bravery came up. "They say windows are dead in Baltimore," she told Schaefer. "They're wrong." And she went on about the ultimate architectural statement she and her husband intended to make with the newly christened Heathen Days.
They were going to tear out the bricked-up front of the building and replace it with glass. Plate glass. Not even rockproof. And without steel bars.
Several weeks later, I found myself in Hamtramck, Michigan, talking about Whitely to David Olko. Olko is the part-owner of the Second Precinct Lounge there, and we'd been talking about Amori's Party Store on East Jefferson in Detroit, several miles south. Amori's is across the street from Renaissance Ford, a dealership that is, in turn, practically in the shadow of the new downtown Renaissance Center, which is supposed to typify the resurgence of downtown Detroit. Amori's has a lot of glass, too, only the glass is an inch and a half thick and bulletproof and inside the liquor store, separating the operators from the customers. Olko agreed that he'd never seen a bank with that kind of security, although he allowed that he'd seen a bar outfitted similarly. His Second Precinct Lounge had been burglarized just the week before, and they'd gotten not only his cash but the guns he keeps handy. The day before that, his cottage up by the lake had been burned. Arson. And a lot of bars were closing around him in Hamtramck, now that the Chrysler Dodge Main plant next door had been shut down permanently, throwing thousands out of work. But Olko wasn't pessimistic about his future, and he said he felt he knew where Whitely was coming from. "Yeah," he said. "You just gotta be tough."
And tough is what defines North America's nation of northeastern gritty cities in a multitude of ways.
Gary. South Bend. Flint. Toledo. Cleveland. Akron. Canton. Youngstown. Wheeling. Sudbury. London. Hamilton. Buffalo. Syracuse. Schenectady. Pittsburgh. Bethlehem. Harrisburg. Wilkes-Barre. Wilmington. Camden. Trenton. Newark.
The litany of names bring clear associations even to the most insulated residents of other regions. These names mean one thing: heavy work with heavy machines. Hard work for those with jobs; hard times for those without.
When columnists speak of managing decline, this is the region they mean. When they speak of the seminal battles of trade unionism, they place their markers here. When they write of the disappearing Democratic city political juggernauts, not for nothing do they call them machines, for this is where they hummed, then rusted.
When television presents the concept "Archie Bunker," it locates his neighborhood here, for the four boroughs of New York that are not Manhattan are part of this nation.
In an ironic way, this place is the real New South, for it received the vast internal migration of job-hungry blacks fleeing the once-overworked land of Dixie, and now it is the warehouse of their discontent. North America's Gulag Archipelago, it's been called; the continent's chain of urban prison camps.
Its capital must be Detroit, the birthplace of the assembly line, but its spiritual center is bankrupt Cleveland. Its hope may be Baltimore, but its shame is Cicero, the northern town whose hatred broke the heart of Martin Luther King, Jr. This is the nation of the Foundry.
A foundry, in which molten metal is cast into forms, historically represents one of the most basic and ancient technologies known to man. "If you want to use your imagination a bit," says Sheldon Wesson, of the American Iron and Steel Institute, "one would guess that the first foundry was born when primitive man saw this reddish crud melting around his campfire, and this hot stuff trickled down into the sand, and when it cooled, it assumed the shape of the area in the sand where it had trickled. It didn't take much of a leap for him to realize that he could produce a form to his own specifications. I've seen foundries today so primitive that you wouldn't believe it. Just wet sand on the floor of the factory. A guy comes along with a hand ladle and pours hot metal pretty much as it was done a million years ago."
Well, not a million years ago, but in the case of copper, at least three millennia before the birth of Christ. Iron is mentioned in the Old Testament eighty-six times, and steel, three.
And historically, the nation of the Foundry served as basic and time-honored a role in the development of North America as the facilities after which it is named. In fact, especially for the hundred years ending during World War II, North American industrial history and the history of the Foundry were close to being the same thing. But even before that, during the 1770s, around the eastern Pennsylvania iron deposits, "iron plantations" were formed, the largest at Hopewell, Pennsylvania, with twelve hundred inhabitants, casting and forging arms, shot, and cannon for the Revolution. The most famous of these plantations, among the many destroyed by British troops trying to weaken George Washington's armies, is Valley Forge.
Early in the 1800s, water power, which had driven the air bellows to create the high temperatures necessary to melt metal, was replaced by steam power. This was an important advance for several reasons, not the least of which was its timeliness, as the demand for boilers, locomotives, rails, and bridges surged with the accelerated western movement of a rapidly growing continent.
But it was also important because it freed the industry geographically from its dependence on locations next to East Coast rivers, flowing rapidly down from the Appalachians, and facilitated its move closer to its supplies of raw materials, most of which were in, or west of, the mountains.
It was in the mid 1800s that a system was invented that would make the production of steel so cheap that the much stronger material could compete with iron - the Bessemer process. In 1864, at Wyandotte, Michigan, on the Detroit River less than ten miles from the Dearborn that Henry Ford would put on the map half a century later, the first North American commercial pour of Bessemer steel was made. From these ingots, North America's first steel railroad track was made in 1865, at the North Chicago Rolling Mill.
Steel from the nation of the Foundry changed the face of the continent. Barbed wire allowed the building of fences in the tree-less Breadbasket, transforming it from rangeland into farmland and promoting the creation of towns. On May 10, 1869, at Promontory Point, Utah, steel rails linked the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific railroads, and thus the coasts. The "Chicago school" of architecture changed the ways cities would look and function by pioneering the steel skyscraper in the 1880s and 1890s.
Meanwhile, steel was changing the geography of the Foundry itself, the interior of which found itself ideally situated in the middle of a triangle of the three resources basic to both iron and steel:
- High-quality iron ore from northern Michigan and, after the completion of the Sault Sainte Marie locks linking Lake Superior and Lake Huron in 1855, the Mesabi Range of Minnesota.
- Bituminous coal, to be baked into the high-heat-value coke of almost pure carbon, found in virtually the entire eastern mountain range, but mainly in the valleys of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky.
- Limestone, which is the shells of prehistoric crustaceans squeezed into rock, used to remove impurities in the iron and steel. It can be found in deposits miles long and thousands of feet deep all over the Northeast, especially in New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Ontario.
But best of all, the water-rich Foundry was laced with navigable waterways ranging from the Great Lakes to the Ohio River to the Erie Canal, and, to this day, water is still the cheapest way to move heavy, bulky items.
So industrial towns grew next to ports. Pittsburgh, the home of United States Steel and Pittsburgh Plate Glass, and the third greatest headquarters city in the United States, is located where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers merge to create the Ohio River. (It's no accident that the football Steelers play in Three Rivers Stadium.)
Cleveland is located where the Cuyahoga River - famous for once being so polluted that it burst into flames - meets Lake Erie - also famous for once being so polluted that it was incapable of sustaining marine life.
Detroit is on the western edge of Lake Erie, as is Toledo. Buffalo is on its eastern edge.
You can still get from Buffalo to Albany via the 1825 Erie Canal, and from there to New York City on the Hudson River. It was that barge canal, linking New York City and the Great Lakes, and along which the cities of Utica, Syracuse, and Rochester were built, which was the beginning of the end for Boston and New England as the primary industrial region. It transformed New York City from a second-class seaport to the East Coast's commercial center. It helped make New York the Empire State. Today's Interstate 90 roughly parallels that canal.
Chicago, Gary, and Milwaukee are on Lake Michigan.
Toronto is on Lake Ontario, and as recently as 1959, that was making an enormous political and economic difference in North America. Nineteen fifty-nine was the year that the St. Lawrence Seaway was completed. As noted above, it's not that the Seaway connected the Lakes and the Atlantic for the first time. What the Seaway did was allow all but the largest oceangoing traffic (for example, supertankers) into the Lakes. Prior to 1959, Québec's Montréal was functionally the end of the line for large craft, and, not coincidentally, Montréal was the financial and commercial hub of Canada. In the last twenty years, that title has passed. over to inland Foundry Toronto, and to this day you can find presumably paranoid Québécois who view the Seaway as nothing but an elaborate Anglo plot to screw the French-speakers once again.
Be that as it may, the point is that these cities would not have evolved, or at least evolved the way they did, had they not been strategically located to wrest wealth efficiently from the very dirt of the planet. These cities were well positioned to have the various earths shipped inexpensively, via the abundant waterways, to central locations. There, they would be thrown together at high heat to make metal and other extremely basic nineteenth-century industrial products. In this process, they attracted wave after wave of cheap immigrant labor-first the wave of Europeans, then the wave of southern blacks, recently the Hispanics. Not for nothing did they call it the Melting Pot. How many people have "melting pots" in their kitchen? That's a Foundry term and concept.
Diego Rivera, the celebrated Mexican muralist, made this point explicitly in the Garden Court of the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1932.
An idealistic Marxist and champion of the working class who believed in individuals laboring for the good of all, Rivera was fascinated by economic and industrial development. When, in California in 1930, he met Dr. William Valentiner, then the curator of that art institute, "he wanted to hear all that I knew about industry in Detroit," Valentiner wrote. The staggering capitalist achievement of "the Rouge" - the Rouge River industrial complex of Henry F