Front Stoops in the Fifties, Baltimore Legends Come of Age

October 24, 2013
BY Gabriel Lewin

102513_mishmash_bookBy Michael Olesker
Johns Hopkins University Press, 248 pages

To be a proud Baltimorean is to be ambivalent. There is perhaps little charm left in Charm City, and yet its people cling to past triumphs and glory days with a fierce tenacity.

Michael Olesker’s latest Baltimore history “Front Stoops in the Fifties, Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” explores this duality: a city that can produce the first African-American Supreme Court justice and the first female Speaker of the House, yet also be home to a vice squad captain who relished his power as a Puritanical police enforcer over fighting actual crimes.

Olesker writes with a present-tense prose, which presents 1950s Baltimore as if it were still living and breathing. He unearths the pride of Baltimore’s civil-rights and civil-liberty leaders and of its cultural icons. However, he also exposes the germination and growth of the infestation of social unrest that plagues the city to date. Each story overlaps in some way with the next.

Although insightful and delightfully more like a collection of short autobiographies, Olesker oozes a highly liberal ethos that scoffs at conservatism and blames much of the ills of today’s Baltimore on the continued blindness or racism/sexism that was rampant in the 1950s. He is not altogether wrong but perhaps shortsighted.

Still, the lives and stories of those personalities who inhabited Baltimore in those years have added “charm” to this city. The question Olesker asks, and the reader must consider, is: What happened?

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