Synagogue Remains a Constant in Evolving Reservoir Hill



Most days of the week the hulking gray stone exterior of Beth Am Synagogue looms over a quiet residential section of Baltimore’s Reservoir Hill neighborhood. On Fridays, though, Eutaw Place in front of the synagogue bustles with people, and the surrounding streets fill with cars driven in from the suburbs.

Sundown each Friday night marks the beginning of Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. On this day of rest, the observant are expected to abstain from work and reflect on creation, exodus and the possibility of the Messiah who has yet to come. To do this they are expected to attend services that take place in a synagogue. What provides comfort to some, though, can also cause inconvenience for others.

For a Beth Am congregant who drives into Baltimore from the suburbs and snags the last parking spot before a Shabbat service and dinner, it’s serendipitous. For single parents who work full-time downtown and live in Reservoir Hill, not being able to find a parking spot after their shifts it’s a problem.

Carl Cleary, the housing coordinator for the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council, said this seemingly minor issue has caused residents of the neighborhood to call the council on Monday morning with concerns that he refuses to call complaints. According to Cleary, though, the phone calls have become seldom, since Beth Am congregants and the largely non-Jewish, African American residents of Reservoir Hill made efforts on both sides to understand and work with each other.

Cleary said that most members of Beth Am do not live in Reservoir Hill, but this doesn’t mean that they’re not important to Reservoir Hill.

“We always say if you live, work, worship or study, you’re part of the community. Now, you may only be there for two hours of the week,” Cleary said. “But you’re part of the community.”

Anyone who lives in an urban environment will encounter issues like shortages of convenient parking on weekends, along with other cultural clashes. Still, the key is to start a conversation instead of walking by, silently breeding resentment — a skill many residents of Reservoir Hill have learned.

If neither group were dedicated to the neighborhood, perhaps there would be less motivation to see eye-to-eye, and one, or both, would leave. However, both Jewish people and black people have deep, complicated historical roots in Reservoir Hill, and in Baltimore on the whole.

Baltimore, along with Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago and others , is one of the country’s most segregated cities, even today. In the early 20th century, the segregation was, predictably, worse.

Restrictive covenants have historically been used to separate established city residents from newcomers. According to University of Maryland researchers, Baltimore used segregation covenants at various times to prevent Jews, blacks, Italians and Greeks from moving into white (northern European) neighborhoods. Houses and apartments available in areas far from Jewish neighborhoods were advertised as areas with good neighbors.

Until it was ruled unconstitutional, white communities in Baltimore used segregation covenants to keep African Americans out of their neighborhood. Then, white people paired with businesspeople and the city to perpetuate an unofficial segregation of Baltimore.

City councilman Leon F. Pinkett III was sworn into office in December of 2016, and exudes a palpable energy and optimism for the position he now holds to help his community. Although he may not have been the 7th District councilman for long, he has lived in the Reservoir Hill area for 17 years. The most difficult experience as a Reservoir Hill resident, for Pinkett and likely for many, were the Freddie Gray riots that shook Baltimore in 2015.

“It would be impossible to be in the city of Baltimore period and not be impacted by the unrest. And then to be mere blocks away, as a father, as a husband … I clearly remember the helicopters flying over our home,” he said.

Despite the fact that some of the looting spread to Eutaw Place, the same street as the synagogue’s address, Rabbi Kelley Gludt said she never felt unsafe in Reservoir Hill. The synagogue does have security, but Gludt said she, along with others at Beth Am, feel compelled to ensure the surrounding, predominantly black community that their proximity was not the motivation for these additional safety measures.

“We don’t have security because we’re in this neighborhood. We have security because we are a Jewish institution,” Gludt said.

Although the United States elected a black president in 2008 and in 2012, and Jews have had the right to practice their religion in this country for decades, threats to both groups simply for not fitting into white America’s mold are far from disappearing.

While many Jews have had the option of “passing” throughout the years, by changing their last names or converting, African Americans have not been able to take advantage of similar modes of self-preservation. Still, both groups know persecution, or at the very least, what it means to be an “other”.

Maybe this shared experience spurs the Jewish and black residents (or weekly visitors) of Reservoir Hill to work together, rather than apart. This alliance will prove particularly important in years to come, as Reservoir Hill shows signs of gentrification.

For many, “gentrification” automatically implies the ousting through outpricing of the minorities who have populated the neighborhood for years, to make space for white people with weird beards and oversized glasses who will open coffee shops where they’ll eat organic kale salads.

Gludt said, as far as the concern of pricing people out of the neighborhood, there has been, “ … very thoughtful development in this neighborhood to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

She said there is a true desire for this to be a healthy neighborhood, but one that includes the people who were already there. In Gludt’s opinion, and others, this does not mean that every building is rehabbed and sold to upper-middle class white people, she said.

Cleary, however, is among the Reservoir Hill residents who have reservations about the neighborhood’s future. When it comes to community members from demographics that don’t tend to benefit from gentrification, he said he wishes he had a more optimistic outlook. Cleary anticipates the neighborhood to become a victim of its own success, he said.

“Folks will come in and try to get a piece of what they think is a good thing,” Cleary said, projecting that people with disposable income will begin moving into new, smaller units built on what are now vacant areas.


(This story was reported in text and video by Sara K. Isenberg for the Baltimore Project, a multimedia workshop exploring the impact of urban development in Baltimore. This project is a collaboration between The Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State University and The School of Global Journalism and Communication at Morgan State University.)

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