“Slum Clearance A la Mode”: The Battle for Baltimore’s Tyson Street

By Emily Lieb 

The story of twentieth-century Baltimore is the story of an expressway. Actually, it’s the story of the idea of an expressway, because most of the highways planned for Baltimore were never built. But the cat’s cradle of lines they made on planners’ maps changed the city all the same. They came close to strangling almost everything they touched.[1]

Explicitly, Baltimore’s planners yoked highway-building to something officials liked to call “slum clearance.” (Which is to say, as long as that was the justification for the road plans, then everything in their way was ipso facto a slum.) Implicitly, this meant what James Baldwin famously called “Negro removal”: that is, plowing under the residential neighborhoods where African-Americans lived and paving them over with bleak ribbons of concrete connecting downtown where white people worked to the suburbs where white people lived.

But what happened when white people were in the way?

“Picasso, Cats, and Gay Façades”[3]

In 1956, 10 years before Baltimore’s highway wars began in earnest, they sparked briefly on one 400-foot sliver of street so tiny it didn’t even appear on many city maps: the 900 block of Tyson Street between Read Street and Park Avenue in the Mount Vernon neighborhood.

Shell Map Tyson Street 1956 copy
Tyson Street Map 1956 from larger Shell Map of Metro Baltimore, 1956

Neighborhood lore held that the little houses along Tyson Street had once been the slave quarters for the estate of the merchant George Carr Grundy. In fact, they’d been built in the first half of the nineteenth century for white working people whom the Sun later called the “arty Irish,” a group which included rugmakers, construction workers, carpenters, and (later) bootleggers and a manufacturer of artificial eyes.[4]

Through the early part of the 20th century, Tyson Street sat tucked between the whitest neighborhoods in West Baltimore, places whose residents had once banded together to write and pass the city’s Progressive-era residential-segregation ordinances. But by the time the highway engineers got to Baltimore in the 1940s, most of the houses along Tyson were occupied by African-Americans.

As a result, to Baltimore’s highway builders, Tyson Street looked like a “slum” that might profitably be eliminated—and so in the late 1950s, they announced a plan to run the inner ring of the bypass highway known as the Jones Falls Expressway right over it.

 

Tyson Street Map 2

But by then, Tyson Street had changed once again. In 1946, a white painter named Eddie Rosenfeld had bought, restored, and moved into one of Tyson’s little houses, a 200-year-old end row between Park and Read Streets. More white people soon followed, including artists, writers, teachers, engineers, nurses, a dentist, and the director of public relations for the YWCA.[5]

These gentrifiers were few in number—there were only a handful of houses on the block, after all—but outsized in influence. They had moved into the inner city from tonier, more suburban places like Roland Park and Ten Hills, and Baltimore’s white newspapers, especially the businessmen’s Sun, were captivated and bewildered by this choice.[6]

“Something of an artists’ colony seems to be in the making on Tyson street,” the Sun reported in 1947. The newcomers had brought a “Greenwich Village touch” to the “old and somewhat ramshackle” neighborhood—Rosenfeld, for instance, had installed “an 18-inch hobby horse as a table decoration and a butcher’s chopping block as a coffee table”—which gave the block a “‘before-and-after’ appearance.”[7]

Of course, not everyone thought “before-and-after” was something to celebrate. In 1948, Sun writer Virginia Paty visited the new Tyson Street, “a pocket-sized compound of Greenwich Village, the Left Bank and Old Baltimore,” and appraised the gentrification she saw there:

One block is still full of garages and storehouses. One block is still full of scraggly cats and old settlers. But the surrealistic third block is full of trick doorknockers, sleek cats and new settlers who have interspersed the standard red housefronts with giddy color patterns combining mustard yellow, bottle green, eggplant purple….

In this rainbow block live antique dealers, artists, a museum director, two department-store display artists, a photographer, a cellist, an art teacher, a few representatives of business. The story of the reclamation of their block from near-slum status makes an intriguing first in the Baltimore-housing record. It sends a cold fear into their colored neighbors in the next block, who wonder what happens to them if the art colony moves south.

Paty pointed out that the street had been named for the Quaker Elisha Tyson, whose fortune was built “by industry and temperance”:

He pleaded the cause of the Indians as well as the Negroes, and one of his life projects was a fight to secure liberation for a group of slaves captured by a Baltimore privateer and kept in bondage here. After a long legal battle, eleven of them were freed and repatriated to Liberia. Ten thousand Negroes, nearly the whole colored population of Baltimore, attended Tyson’s funeral in 1824.

In Paty’s framing, the new Tyson Street had betrayed its eponym. In 1946, Eddie Rosenfeld had paid $1,800 for his Tyson Street house. Six months later, someone bought a house down the block for $3,000. “Now,” she wrote, “a half-improved place is up for $6,500”; what’s more, some families reported spending more than $16,000 on renovations.

Who could afford that? Certainly not the African-American families who had been pushed off the street’s 900 block, and not the ones who lived on the 800 block or the 700 block either:

Sallie Keys, now in her seventies, has lived in the 800 block since she was a child, and she worries. “I don’t know any other street but Tyson, right where I’m at. I don’t think I could live anywhere else but here.”

Paty spent most of her piece mocking the newcomers’ “arty décor” (“Matisse and Picasso, kidney-shaped tables and low-slung chairs, fawn carpets and hurricane lamps are almost de rigeur”)—but for the displaced residents of Tyson Street, gentrification was no joking matter. “They don’t want to mix with us, but they come pushing us out,” one longtime Tyson Streeter said. “White folks got no right to put us out.”[8]

Tyson Street 1.jpg

In a letter to the editor published soon after Paty’s article, some of the Tyson Street “pioneers” responded:

The residents of Tyson street resent being butchered to furnish a reporter’s holiday. The word “arty,” for instance—we don’t like it. It conjures up visions of Greenwich Village in the bad old days, when artists and writers and such queer ducks stayed up till dawn carousing and generally behaving badly, then slept all day….

Actually the ‘few representatives of business’ are in a large majority, but of course it wouldn’t do to say so, for then people might get the idea that Tyson street has been restored by folks who simply wanted a nice place to live and work; which would make them seem just like everybody else, so why write the article?

Their letter continued:

Actually there are on Tyson street one small Picasso print and one low-slung chair. There are no Matisses, no kidney-shaped tables, no hurricane lamps and no fawn carpets. Your reporter was apparently once frightened by a fancy magazine and is still suffering from decorator’s hallucinations.

But the thing we resent the most is the implication that we wantonly pushed the colored people off the block without regard for their feelings or situations. If your reporter had taken the trouble to check facts it would have been found that, prior to renovation, every house in the block was substandard and violated all the health laws that have ever been heard of, that in all cases old residents were given as much time as they needed to find new places to live; that many of them were given financial assistance; and that the majority were placed in homes far better than the ones they left.

The need for good Negro housing is surely a crying one, but the loss of one block of Tyson street did not create it. And your reporter’s inference that the rents on the rest of Tyson street were raised because of our one block is so palpably untrue that it needs no denial. The Evening Sun, with its professed interest in good housing, would do well to give credit where credit is due to people who have, with imagination and by their own efforts, reclaimed a slum area. Instead, it publishes an article which, from beginning to end, is an ill-concealed sneer at honest effort.[9]

In at least one respect, the new Tyson Streeters were right: their homes had once been “substandard.” As a 1949 article in Living for Young Homemakers reported, just one house on the block had had indoor plumbing before Eddie Rosenfeld moved in. None had gas, hot water, or heat, and “cook stoves of the wood-burning variety were found in such inconsistent places as a cellar, on a second-floor landing, and smack inside a front door.” [10]

They were right about something else, too: the need for good housing for African-Americans in Baltimore was a crying one. This was not a secret. In fact, the city was becoming famous for it.

By the late 1940s, Baltimore’s campaign against bad housing—a push for code enforcement known as the Baltimore Plan for Housing Law Enforcement—had caught the attention of the national press. In a code-enforcement campaign, the blame for bad housing and the responsibility for its improvement fall to property owners, not the government. The Baltimore Plan was noteworthy because it was a compromise between intervening and not intervening in a private housing market that only worked for some people.

Like the gentrification of Tyson Street, the Baltimore Plan depended for its success on the good-faith initiative of property owners. However, those it targeted were not the householders who could be found on Tyson Street. Instead—in theory—the Baltimore Plan used the threat of city sanction to persuade “slum landlords” to clean up rental properties that they themselves did not live in, or anywhere near. [11]

But Tyson Street was Baltimore’s star. Its handful of glamorously spruced-up houses became a camera-ready symbol of the power of private initiative to reshape the urban landscape.

“This little street in downtown Baltimore and the group of people who have re-created it, have set an example for the city and the rest of the country for that matter in the campaign for better housing and slum clearance,” wrote Shelley Murphy, a white resident of Tyson Street, in a 1949 article for Baltimore magazine:

Tyson Street was a slum area! Here was a group of 18 houses, falling apart, filthy, and tax assessed for less than $1000 apiece…The character and spirit of early 19th century Baltimore was in these houses, and needed only a little lumber, a little paint, and a car-load of elbow grease to be brought to the surface.

“Tyson Street is certainly an unusual solution to the slum problem in downtown Baltimore,” Murphy concluded, “but it looks like the most economic and attractive solution found to date. Before endorsing tearing down any more of Baltimore’s old houses…think twice. Think about restoration instead of destruction. There’s room in Baltimore for many more Tyson Streets.” [12]

Tyson Street 7
Baltimore Sun Magazine, October 20, 1957

At home and afield, the mythology of Tyson Street caught on. In 1950, the Encyclopedia Britannica cited the neighborhood as a city landmark, a signal example of “private urban renewal” in a “reclaimed slum.” (“Reclaimed” from what, or whom, the encyclopedia did not specify.) Year after year, the residents of the 900 block kept themselves in the news: photographs of artfully arranged interiors became a staple of the local “Women’s Pages,” and starting in 1951 an annual house tour allowed looky-loos from all over the metropolitan area to see just what “arty” urban living was all about.

Tyson Street 2

 

Tyson Street 3

“A Highway Could Be as Bad to Us as a Bomb”[13]

As far as tourists, magazine photographers, and the Encyclopedia Britannica were concerned, the Tyson Street sophisticates had successfully laundered “blight” into “charm.” Critiques like Paty’s were all but forgotten, swamped by all the praise for the moxie of Tyson Street’s enterprising homeowners

Yet in August 1957, as one resident remembered, “I was lolling on a beach in New England when a neighbor from Tyson Street phoned to warn me, ‘come home at once, they’re going to run the Jones Falls Expressway through your kitchen!’”[14]

In fact, they were going to run the Jones Falls Expressway through a lot of people’s kitchens. They had been planning to do so for almost 20 years.

By the early 1940s, the idea that express highways were the solution to the problems facing aging cities was a popular one in urban-planning circles. Some people, among them members of Baltimore’s Planning Commission, believed that traffic was choking cities to death. [15] At the same time, highway-builders argued that it could be easy to eliminate the “obsolete buildings and lowered property values” that plagued the inner city: just pave them over.[16] Swapping these “slums” for expressways would make people want to come downtown again, and make it easy for them to do it.

On this theory, since 1942 planners had considered and rejected eight different expressway plans for Baltimore.[17] But all this waffling was basically academic: even if they had been able to settle on a route, the city and state still would have had to come up with almost all of the money to pay for the road’s construction.

This they could not do—until 1956, when Congress passed the $26 billion Federal-Aid Highway Act. Now cities and states could afford to build what they wanted, where they wanted. In fact, as reporter Mark Reutter put it in his account of Baltimore’s highway controversies, “with such mouthwatering subsidies, it was hardly worth not building expressways.”[18]

And so, in Baltimore as across the country, the urban highway went from being a means to an end to being the end itself.

With eyes on the promised federal funding, Baltimore’s highway engineers began to redraw the lines on their maps—lines that were, for the first time, more prognostic than speculative. One of these was the East-West Expressway between Franklin and Mulberry Streets. (The part of this road that was eventually built is familiar to Baltimoreans today as the “Highway to Nowhere.”) Another was a bypass highway that would draw through traffic around instead of through the clogged downtown. This was the road that would eviscerate Tyson Street.

Tyson St Map 1
TYSON STREET AND THE “INNER RING”
Baltimore Evening Sun (September 19, 1956)

To the Tyson Street homeowners, used to being seen and heard, this decision seemed—at best— counterproductive. In a letter to the Mayor D’Alesandro, the president of the Save Tyson Street Committee wrote:

Not only does the 900 block of Tyson Street represent Baltimore’s most famous example of the elimination of slums through private enterprise, but…tax assessments and consequently revenue to the city have risen several hundred per cent over the last ten years. [19]

Tyson Street 5.jpg
“There’s No Joy In Tyson Street.” Baltimore American (September 30, 1956).

D’Alesandro gave a watery non-response that would become familiar to students of Baltimore’s highway politics: he told reporters that while he “sympathized with the plight of the Tyson Street residents,” he did not “want to be in the position of urging the expressway and then hindering it.”[20]

Planners temporized by bumping the highway’s route a few blocks north for the moment, deflecting but not eliminating the threat to the place the newspaper called “Baltimore’s freshly painted patch of antiquity.”[21] Then, in August 1957, the city’s director of public works sent a message to the Save Tyson Street Committee: “Expect the worst.” “It was a question, [he] said, of whether the highway is more important than Tyson street,” the Sun reported. “He made it clear that he thought the highway was the primary consideration.” [22]

Death Sentence Tyson.jpg

It wasn’t just the Tyson Streeters who disagreed. Some policymakers, especially those whose job it was to celebrate the power of private initiative to transform urban neighborhoods, were ambivalent about the highway, too. In September, at a symposium on the federal highway program in Hartford, housing official Albert Cole summarized this dilemma. There were, he said, “two great [federal] programs—urban renewal and urban highways. Surely it would be ironical if the two programs should operate in opposition to each other.”

Pointing to the highway administrator on the dais next to him, Cole concluded:

From his point of view, our carefully planned redevelopment of a slum section may be a threat to progress. He may fear his splendid roads may have to be relocated, perhaps at heavy cost. My plea…is simply this: keep in mind the little places with the window boxes—the Tyson streets…a bit of color here, a window box there, something a bit different, is not at all a bad thing in our steel and concrete and atomic civilization. [23]

To be clear, Tyson Street was not technically an urban-renewal project; as far as federal housing officials were concerned, it was something better. Inspired by the Baltimore Plan—or, more accurately, by the triumphant parable about private enterprise that the Baltimore Plan had become—the Housing Act of 1954 required cities receiving urban-redevelopment money from the federal government to show that they were using code enforcement and housing rehabilitation to revitalize blighted residential neighborhoods.

To Cole, this was the practical problem the highway through Tyson Street posed. How could you celebrate private enterprise if you weren’t going to respect its results? What message would it send if some planners watched as others bulldozed homeowners’ investments? Why would anyone in any city spend money on a place like Tyson Street again?

To the historian, these questions underscore bigger ones. What, and who, would the city’s future be? Which parts of it were worth preserving, and who got to decide? Were the new Tyson Streeters—“inverted block bust[ers],” the Sun called them—owed consideration that their African-American neighbors to the north or south were not?[24] Should Eddie Rosenfeld’s investment buy him more of a say about what happened to his home than Sallie Keys had gotten?

In the end, the little street never got plowed under; on the contrary, it thrived. In 1957, residents used the proceeds from the annual open house to hire highway engineers of their own to (the Sun reported) “devise satisfactory and constructive alternatives to wiping out the Pastel Block. They don’t want the Encyclopedia Britannica to be entirely wrong.”[25] The road plans moved on, toward paths of less resistance. In 1964, the annual tour of gentrified Tyson Street was extended oneblock south of Read Street—which was, one real-estate man told the Sun, “catching fire.” “I wish I had about twenty of these [blocks] in a row,” he said. “I’d show Georgetown up.”[26]

Tyson Street 4
“The beautiful result of this bootstrap operation”
Ford Times (February 1961)

Other parts of the city were not so lucky. During the 1960s, officials began to draw condemnation lines for the proposed East-West Expressway across the city’s midsection, now an eight-lane double-decker leviathan shoved along the Franklin-Mulberry corridor toward the western city line. Along its route lay the city’s most concentrated black neighborhoods—places lacking the photogenic “Parisian atmosphere,” not to mention the photogenic white homeowners, which had made Tyson Street so alluring to reporters and officials alike. These were the places that would suffer the most from the highway wars of the 1960s, and these are the places that have never recovered.

As for the 900 block of Tyson Street, though it’s now tucked under the dogleg of the six-lane Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard separating black West Baltimore from Mount Vernon and downtown, it’s still there and—along with the neighborhood around it—still comparatively gentrified. Unlike the poorer, blacker neighborhoods to its west, it bears few scars from its time in the highway’s crosshairs. In fact, you’ve probably seen it: film buffs say that the most famous scene in the movie Pink Flamingos—yes, that one—was filmed at the corner of Tyson and Read. One Baltimore icon has faded into another.

divine-marker.jpg
Read and Tyson Streets, Baltimore (1996) via baltimoreorless.com

 

MatteoRicci_cjk_EmilyLieb_006.JPGEmily Lieb (@balti_less) teaches history and urban studies and is the former director of the Poverty Education Center at Seattle University. She received her Ph.D. in U.S. History from Columbia in 2010 and her A.B. from Brown in 1999. She is writing a book about the ways in which school and housing segregation shaped the Rosemont neighborhood in West Baltimore.

Featured image (at top): From the Baltimore Evening Sun, June 3, 1959. [2] 

[1] Note the title of the piece, namely “Slum Clearance A la Mode” is from Shelley L. Murphy, “Tyson Street…Slum Clearance A la Mode.” Baltimore (October 1949). Enoch Pratt Free Library, Maryland Vertical File.

[2] This illustration and many others in this essay came from the Maryland Vertical File at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Thanks to the librarians there for keeping these clippings so well preserved!

[3] Virginia Paty, “Picasso, Cats and Gay Facades—That’s Arty Tyson Street Now.” Baltimore Evening Sun (May 17, 1948).

[4] “Frustrated Fables.” Baltimore Evening Sun (September 8, 1959). Enoch Pratt Free Library, Maryland Vertical File.

[5] John Goodspeed, “Its Facades Delight Sightseers.” Baltimore Sun (October 20, 1957), SM15.

[6] It’s worth noting here that the Tyson Street newcomers were mostly young couples and, per the Sun, “bachelors.” By the time Eddie Rosenfeld arrived there were no schools for white children anywhere nearby, because Baltimore’s schools were legally segregated until 1954 and segregated in fact after that. This is the unstated reason why, as one reporter wrote in 1955, “there are no young children on Tyson Street.” “When Tyson Street residents have children,” she euphemized, “they move further out where the youngsters have companions and room to play.” “53 Tyson Street Pets Being Preened For Open House To Benefit Blind.” Baltimore Evening Sun (June 3, 1955).

[7] “Artist Colony-To-Be Seen For Tyson Street.” Baltimore Evening Sun (January 13, 1947).

[8] Virginia Paty, “Picasso, Cats and Gay Facades—That’s Arty Tyson Street Now.” Baltimore Evening Sun (May 17, 1948).

[9] “Tyson Street.” Letter to the Editor, Baltimore Evening Sun (May 28, 1948).

[10] “Tyson Street Skips a Century.” Living for Young Homemakers (September/October 1949), 53.

[11] See the author’s “‘Baltimore Does Not Condone Profiteering in Squalor’: The Baltimore Plan and the Problem of Housing-Code Enforcement in an American City” in Planning Perspectives (2017).

[12] Shelley L. Murphy, “Tyson Street…Slum Clearance A la Mode.” Baltimore (October 1949).

[13] John Goodspeed, “Tyson Street’s Pastel Block.” Baltimore Sun (October 20, 1957), SM15.

[14] Shelley Murphy, “On Tyson Street.” Baltimore Sun (January 29, 1989), 6E.

[15] “It has caused congestion,” Baltimore’s planners cried, “made our streets dangerous…and created blight.” Planning Commission of Baltimore, Traffic and You (1950), 7.

[16] Quoted in Mark H. Rose and Raymond A. Mohl, Interstate: Highway Politics and Policy Since 1939, 3/e (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2012), 61.

[17] City of Baltimore Planning Commission, Study for East-West Expressway (1960).

[18] Reutter, “Before the City Council,” 13.

[19] “Tyson Street Backers to See D’Alesandro, Aides Today.” Baltimore Sun (October 3, 1956), 27.

[20] “Planners Ease Tyson St. Blues.” Baltimore Sun (October 11, 1956), 42.

[21] “Planners Ease Tyson St. Blues.” Baltimore Sun (October 11, 1956), 42.

[22] “Tyson Streeters Tell Mayor They Plan Fight To Finish.” Baltimore Sun (August 21, 1957), 23.

[23] “Tyson Street Discussion Held.” Baltimore Sun (September 10, 1957), 36.

[24] “Mr. Peep’s Diary.” Baltimore Evening Sun (June 1, 1960).

[25] John Goodspeed, “Tyson Street’s Pastel Block.” Baltimore Sun (October 20, 1957), SM15.

[26] Gabrielle Wise, “Tyson Street Tour Extended.” Baltimore Sun (June 2, 1964).

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