My back porch is one of the most reflective spots on Earth. And when it’s breezeless and just the right temperature–that certain degree that feels like no temperature at all, man, I could sit out here forever and ponder what it means to be human and what exists beyond our universe. And also, I can’t help but drift back to some of my very favorite thoughts. Like an old friend, I welcome in the daydream of who was here before.
Remember those T shirts everybody had in middle school? One said, “I am a girl. I am an athlete. Soccer is my sport.” Another read, “If you can’t run with the big dogs…STAY ON THE PORCH.” And then the one that is relevant to this piece (so I can stop showing off my memory of middle school apparel in the ’90s), a collection of animals straight outta the ark and the words, “They were here first.”
No disrespect to the animals because we surely are damning them as a society right now but with my day dreamy brain, I keep thinking that phrase but applying it to the people who were here first (not the Native Americans, I will save that for another day).
In a century-old neighborhood like Hampden (I can hear the Europeans laughing at me from across the ocean), the history can go unnoticed or it can slap you in the face like the lingering shards in sailcloth factory window frames. You can operate your stainless steel appliances and maybe never think about what this house’s first stove looked like and what element it required to heat up. Maybe you can dig in your garden and think of this as your yard’s first rodeo because you haven’t taken a stab at beefsteak tomatoes before. Or you stare out across the alley and watch people living their lives like you’re looking at your own moving dollhouses.
But do you ever imagine the old-timey people living their lives in your living room? Lying their heads right where you put yours down each night? Do you see their big skirts and layers of drawers prancing around your house? Can you picture the man of the house coming home with a metal lunch pail gripped in grey dusty fingers? Is his wife filling an ashtray in the kitchen, counting her hours in Marlboro Lights? Do you see a chicken coop out back and fresh eggs in the ice box where your Frigidaire hums now? What did they store in the basement? What did they eat every Friday night? Before the dug in, did they pray first? Did they walk to the church at 38th and Roland on Sunday mornings? Were their kids born on the hardwoods of the upstairs bedroom like my Gram’s sister Dolly? Was their couch in the same spot that yours sits? Who is responsible for the stain on the floor near the dining room table? Did someone from the past love sitting out back watching others live their lives?
Partially, I think I love the dreaminess and the slight sorrow of nostalgia. I find my heart living in the space between amazement that they were here and sadness that they’re not anymore. And I didn’t even know them. But somehow, I make these people alive when I picture them moving in the spaces where I move. It’s like I am paying them homage when I bring them to life in my mind.
You were here. I honor you. I will care for this place.
Over the past year two of the backyards across our alley have been gigantic trash cans for the contents of the homes in front of them. It’s that old Hampden story on loop. Grandparents were ill or dead, they left the house to their grandkids, their grandkids were using drugs in the house, the foundation was crumbling, some flipper saw potential and bought it for maybe $80 thousand. He’ll get granite countertops and brushed nickel faucets and sell it for $315K in three months. When I go in our back bedroom now, I keep catching my eye on those yards thinking that it has snowed but only in two backyards and nowhere else. I snap back and realize the yards are paved for parking. And then I imagine the old-timey kids playing and dreaming in their backyards in the 1920s. Was it a mini baseball diamond like my yard often became? Did they dig in the dirt, practice their flips, wrestle to the death? Did their momma beg them not to trample some old-timey-sounding flower like begonias? Did they ever imagine that their factory workers’ hood would ever be so desirable that a parking pad would seem the only sensible choice?
Sometimes I do this at red lights. Just turn to the left and wonder about that storefront, or that one, or that one, or the house right there, or that old lot. Baltimore is ripe for the picking for those who wish to daydream about the past. We have all levels of decay. Utter and complete dilapidation, abandonment, newly forgotten, and then the newly discovered and gentrified.
Who was there? Did it matter to someone? Did a woman or man take pride in keeping that stoop dirt-free? What did that church sound like on Sundays at 11 a.m.? Who touched up that trim in the ’50s?
When I find myself in that space somewhere among the triangle of nostalgia and sorrow and rosy retrospection, I’m enjoying myself. I like that spot because the possibilities are limitless. Those people can be happy. They can be ignorant to the future destruction or paving or making trash out of things that once mattered to them. They’re preserved right there in that spot in my mind. Just as they are. With their old-timey clothes and their proud homes and their mini baseball diamond backyard. They don’t age. They’re just there, suspended in time and in peace. And maybe they deserve that because they were here first.
And now, a photo essay (not that I really know what constitutes a photo essay). I took the captions out of the caption view because I think they’re easier to read that way.
I doubt the architect who dreamed up that terracotta design pictured The Hustler in the next millennium. (For context, I took this picture at the 2018 Women’s March on Baltimore.)
Roosevelt Community Center Stage. This is where the Hampden Community Council Meetings are held, just below this mural suspended in the air and suspended in time. Seriously, when was the last time they let kids use those deathtrap rings on chains in gym class? It takes two hands to count the ways someone could die on those.
The Hippodrome Theatre opened in 1914 to show vaudeville films with the sound provided by live musicians. It closed in 1990. Then in 2004 it reopened as a performing arts center. If you have been or you go there sometime in the future, just imagine people paying the premium price of 60 cents for the evening showing of Six of A Kind.
Govans Presbyterian Church is a block from the Senator Theatre but if I told you I took this photo on the grounds of a Belgian castle, would you believe me? It opened in the 1840s and is named for the Scottish family who settled the Govans neighborhood in North Baltimore. Imagine antebellum Presbyterians flooding in and out of these doors. Can you see the top hats and hoop skirts?
This is Bates Hall in the Central Branch of the Boston Public Library. Hardly a forgotten Baltimore rowhouse, it was built in 1895. Joshua Bates, a wealthy Bostonian, told BPL he would give them $5o thousand provided that “the building shall be such as to be an ornament to the City, that there shall be a room for one hundred to one hundred and fifty persons to sit at reading tables, and that it be perfectly free to all.” And here we still have it, over 120 years later.
This is a view of Druid Lake in Druid Hill Park in Baltimore (the lake is now being cleaned and renovated–however you renovate a lake–so this view may no longer exist since I took it a year ago). Ready to feel sad? According to the Baltimore Rec and Parks website, “The history of Druid Hill Park began over two centuries ago when the Susquehannock Indians ceded land in 1652- that included that park’s area and its holdings to Lord Baltimore. Because of its access to the Jones Falls stream and other springs it is believed to have been an ideal site for the Native Americans. Lord Baltimore subsequently began to parcel the land out.” How awful that the history of this place began when we forced out people who’d be there for…ever? Lloyd Nicholas Rogers sold the land he had inherited from his father to the City of Baltimore in 1860. The reservoir was added in 1863, hard to imagine building a reservoir with the Civil War going on and bullets flying all over the place (my vision).
The park was part of the American Parks Movement which sought to give urban dwellers a place to play. It was modeled after European Parks. In 1992 an R&B group calling themselves “Dru Hill” launched onto the music scene with #1 hits “In My Bed,” “Never Make a Promise,” and “How Deep Is Your Love.” Sisqo, of “The Thong Song” was a member of Dru Hill. Can you imagine the slave-holding Nicholas Rogers (Lloyd’s dad) hearing the music of the band launched from his land’s loins? Just makes me giddy inside!
This is the entirety of LMCJ back in January 2016, all crammed into Lillie May Carroll Jackson’s (the person) former kitchen (I’m guessing) on Eutaw Place. This home, which Lillie May bought through the owner of the Orioles at the time (Hoffberger) was in a neighborhood where African Americans just did not live. In it she hosted Civil Rights Leaders who visited Baltimore since blacks were not allowed to stay in hotel rooms in Baltimore in her heyday. The home is now the Lillie Carroll Jackson Civil Rights Museum. When we visited in 2016, it was still being completed. If LMCJ (the person) could only see what’s going on in the room where she hosted Jackie Robinson, MLK, and so many more.
This is my classroom as I inherited it in August 2015. Woodbourne Junior High School opened to all whites in 1953. It has a bomb shelter in the basement and down there you can see where the building’s footprint was stamped right on an existing sidewalk, an existing world. The school was so crowded for a time that despite its massiveness, there were morning kids and afternoon kids since there wasn’t enough space to teach them all at once. Woodbourne Junior High gave way to Chinquapin Middle School which then became Baltimore Information Technology Academy and then Lillie May Carroll Jackson and we now share with Baltimore Collegiate. When I taught in this room, I often imagined 40 little white kids crammed into desks with shiny shoes and ties and dresses, because that’s what they chose to wear. The story of Madalyn Murray O’Hair is just absolutely bananas throughout every decade. Its inception? Woodbourne Junior High School and the fight for an atheists to not have to pray with their teachers. Maybe O’Hair’s son took Algebra in my classroom. Maybe he was here first.
Other links if you share my daydreams. These photos are each worth at least a million words.
In Maryland? You can look up the history of your house by making an account here: mdlandrec.net. Thanks, Dan!
7 thoughts on “They Were Here”
I already was a “Daydream Believer” (The Monkees nostalgia) – now even more so…LOL, D
As usual, loved your well chosen words. Also the history lessons. And I’m old enough to now remember the lives led by people who once inhabited the houses in my own neighborhood. They’re long gone–fled to suburban areas to raise and school their children. Many of them are dead. My memory sometimes fails, but Anna and Dorian have good ones too. My Chambers stove still works in my kitchen and it remembers countless meals slow cooked since the time the house was built. It’s got a few stories to share with me.
Love this. Thank you. ❤
And yes, in response to a question you asked me a long time ago, I DO have your book. I have been reading piecemeal. Can I keep it a little bit longer?
Is that Chas trying to break into the Belgian church?!
Service to your people is the rent you pay for living on this earth. (love this message. thank you Lillie Carroll Jackson)
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Thank you. Nice sentiments. I also like to look all over the place when waiting at red lights and imagine what may have happened in those abandoned houses and buildings……on North Ave. and all our nearby neighborhoods. I always learn something new from your blogs. Those photos are very helpful, too!