Book Review Front Stoops in the Fifties
Michael Olesker’s book trades in nostalgia for a more innocent time
Published: January 1, 2014
Front Stoops in the Fifties
Johns Hopkins University Press
The cover of Michael Olesker’s book Front Stoops in the Fifties (Johns Hopkins University Press) shows women and children scrubbing the marble steps of their rowhouses in the grand Baltimore tradition. Given the picture and the title, you might think that the writing within focuses on the history of such stoops, their cultural significance, the role they played in the era of Hoover and Studebakers. You would be wrong.
Front stoops are mentioned only in passing, and even though their cultural significance might be a worthy subject for an essay, even that is only vaguely alluded to. The book’s subtitle is actually much more descriptive: Baltimore legends come of age. Yes, this is a book about people, Baltimoreans, not steps. Thank God.
Olesker, a Sun columnist from 1981 to 2006, tells the stories of prominent folks with mid-century Baltimore roots, like Jerry Leiber, Clarence Mitchell Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Nancy Pelosi, and Barry Levinson, along with those of considerably less prominent Baltimoreans, like atheist Madalyn Murray, whose Supreme Court case got prayer out of public schools, and Alexander Emerson, the police captain whose moral crusades against gambling and strippers reflected an attempt to hold on to the past amid vast cultural changes.
To say that Olesker trades in nostalgia would be an understatement. His columns and his books, including Olesker’s Baltimore: If You Live Here, You’re Home; Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore; and The Colts’ Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the Fifties, often portray a simpler, more lovable hard-luck blue-collar city than the one we live in today. This view is evident throughout Front Stoops in the Fifties, in Olesker’s always-vivid, detailed prose, as in this excerpt from the essay on master songwriter Leiber:
In a place like 1950s Baltimore, you could hang out at a busy Gwynn Oak Junction, at Liberty Heights and Gwynn Oak Avenues, or on Eastern Avenue near Patterson Park, or on Pennsylvania Avenue before the heroin invasion, and a summer evening’s pulsing with life. Teenage boys who’ve all pitched in for gas at 25-cents a gallon are packed into a jalopy playing “Yakety-Yak” up loud on the radio while girls from the neighborhood stroll up the block (some of ’em with pin curlers in their hair, even if it’s Saturday night) slurping chocolate snowballs from the corner grocery.
And yet, Olesker’s portrayals don’t shy away from the harsh realities of the era. His essays on Mitchell and Marshall depict a world of brutal entrenched racism, and the one on real estate kingpin Morris Goldseker is devastating:
At the end of his life he leaves all of his money to start a great charitable foundation to aid the poor. But Goldseker waits to die before he becomes a hero. In the fifties and beyond, he’s one of the biggest realtors capitalizing on every white person’s fear of blacks and every black person’s hunger for a better home. Goldseker knows people’s naivete about mortgages and financing and loopholes in contracts, and entire neighborhoods will come apart in the process.
In-depth interviews and decades of cultural observance breathe colorful life into each of these essays. We see Pelosi’s upbringing in the Little Italy-based political machine of her father, Mayor Tommy D’Alessandro. Mitchell, the civil rights activist and NAACP lobbyist, stares down an angry mob outside Gwynn Falls Park Junior High wearing a placard that reads “I am an American too!” after the Supreme Court decision integrating public schools. Leiber transforms the boogie-woogie music he hears while delivering groceries from his mom’s Fulton Street market to black families into chart-topping hits like “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock.”
Taken together, these essays paint a picture of a city and a country in transition. One phrase pops up again and again, “the innocent fifties”—it would make a more fitting title. Through the experiences of the dozen or so people whose stories he tells, Olesker describes a population that is feeling the ground shift beneath its feet. The book begins and ends with Nov. 22, 1963, the day of the Kennedy assassination, an event that Olesker describes as the end of the ’50s. Front Stoops, besides being a great historical record of some of our city’s most fascinating characters, provides an excellent context for understanding much of what has happened since that fateful day.
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