Our readers out there with careful eyes and unusually strong memories may have noticed that the maiden name in the title of this post seems familiar. Nearly two years ago, we glimpsed into the life of Frank Vanik, a blacksmith who lived at 2438 Eager Street, site of our very first deconstruction project.
2438 E Eager Street, as we found it nearly two years ago.
When we arrived on the scene, 2438 Eager Street had been long abandoned and was essentially four brick walls surrounding a pile of rotted lumber. Through census records, however, we were able to track Frank Vanik’s path from neighborhood blacksmith to shipyard worker to auto mechanic, a trajectory that we felt aptly captured the moment he lived in.
Two years after we first wrote about him, we’re happy to report that we have a bit more information about Frank, as well as some vividly and beautifully remembered stories of his former neighborhood, thanks to Janet Divel (née Vanik), his grand-niece, the woman you see in the photo below.
Janet Divel (Vanik) in front of her house at 408 N Port Street. She is 14 in this photo. (Image courtesy of Janet Divel)
Janet saw our post about her great uncle and wrote to us. Turns out Janet grew up in the same neighborhood as Great Uncle Frank, a few blocks south of Eager Street on the 400 block of N Port Street. She lived there from the early 1940s until 1964, when she moved away from Baltimore. There’s no sense in trying to paraphrase her beautiful writing, so what follows is the letter that Janet sent us, interspersed with her own photos, as well as some that we’ve taken or sourced from elsewhere:
“Growing up in Baltimore City was a mixture of sounds, smells, sights and people. We in the late 40s, 50s, and early 60s lived a unique way of life, something that is disappearing. We were mostly growing up in a working class/low income area; there was no assistance those days. We never had much money, but we had the neighborhood, which we were all connected to and if someone needed help, if a neighbor could help they would…We all were responsible for something that we called neighborhood. Neighbors would be out front and in the alleys with their hoses and brooms and cleaning the streets and alleys. There was a lot of pride how your street and house looked not fancy but clean.
This shot, which Janet says was taken before she was born, probably in the 1930s, shows her neighborhood in East Baltimore. (Image courtesy of Janet Divel)
No one had air conditioning. In the summer we would all sit out front on the steps. We were taught that all of us knew those two words, respect and responsibility. One of my jobs when I turned 9 was to scrub the front steps which were marble slabs, take a bath every Saturday, run errands, clean the vestibule which was the very small entrance and get a job, when out of school; the average age out of school 15/17 years old.
After graduating the eighth grade from St. Wenceslaus School in 1953 on Collington Avenue and Madison Street, which is now a housing unit. I believe the church is still there. I went to St. Andrews Business School on Washington Street and Madison Street for two years after graduating I got a job. Now it’s a parking lot for Hopkins Hospital.
Site of the former St. Andrew’s Commercial School. (Image courtesy of Google Maps)
Patterson Park, located on Patterson Park Avenue and Baltimore Street was the only country I grew up with. There was a playground and in the winter a place to sleigh ride. The park was fairly safe then, and we were young, not teenagers yet, but always went to the park with other friends. We looked out for each other. Growing up in the city made you street smart at a young age.
The boys in the neighborhood were always told on those narrow city streets, or yelled at, to go to the park to play baseball. When they hit the ball with a bat there were many windows in the way.
This photo shows Janet’s brother, Richard, in the rear of their house at 408 N Port Street. (Image courtesy of Janet Divel)
Patterson Park was 4 blocks from my house. There was a Chinese pagoda type building on the Patterson park Avenue side which was always a mystery to me.
(Image courtesy of postcard memory.com)
The sounds were lots of things. There was a church on Patterson Park Ave and Orleans St. that would chime every quarter, half, and whole hour. After a while you liked it. I knew what time it was. The traffic sounds on the 2400 block of Orleans Street, which was down the corner from house, all day and night. A huckster would come down the street with a horse and wagon selling watermelon and other fruits and veggies yelling “watermelon.” He would cut a pyramided slice for you to test it for sweetness. Down the back alley there would come a guy once a week yelling “get your scissors and gives sharpened here.” As the 50s disappeared, so did the hucksters. There was a stable on N. Bradford Street and E. Monument Street and a place where people made brooms. When they tore that down, it was over for that way of life.
Now the smells were great during the summer. Less than a block away there were two crab houses on the 2400 block of Orleans St., Patterson Park Avenue and Milton Ave. They were the Blue Point Crab house and Gordon’s Crab House. They would pick the crab meat there behind large glass windows, you could watch the ladies working. They had a menu of fresh crabs, steamed crabs, crab meat, crab cakes, soft crab sandwiches and crab cake subs. The local grocery and produce stores would always have soft crabs lying on a table with something that looked like wet hay lying on the top and you could pick out the soft crab that you wanted. One of the more popular things were coddies, shaped like a small hamburger made of potatoes and cod fish. The local stores would also have them on their counters with mustard and saltine crackers. You could buy one for 5 cents. Add a Pepsi with that and you had a meal.
From my upstairs window we could see the Esskay Meat factory sign, which was on 3800 East Baltimore Street til 1993, so depending on the way the wind blew, you could smell various meat smells. This place was one of the main employers in the area in the 40s, 50s, and 60s.
(Image courtesy of Kilduffs.com)
It’s like the factories disappeared and the city changed for the worst.
The sights and people were just about anything you could imagine. Busy and vibrant is the words I can think of. Local clubs (gangs) started appearing in the 50s, names like the Imperials and Imperialets, with red and white jackets, the Joyriders with green and white jackets, 7th wards, and many others. Just to make it clear, we were not violent or disrespectful, we were a bunch of kids having fun. The hangout places were North Rose Street and East Jefferson Street, the Arundel on North Bradford Street and East Monument Street and Patterson park Avenue and Madison.
“Dockie” Hunt on the left. According to Janet, he was known as one of the best dressed guys in the neighborhood. (Image courtesy of Janet Divel)
Buses were the main type of transportation those days, especially in the early 50s, more and more of the young guys started to buy cars, old cars, nothing new, and they sure loved those cars. Old Fords, Chevrolets, and anything they could afford. Most of the cars were primered, looked like a dull black paint, and were never really painted. Who could afford that. There were garages near the train tracks off of North Luzerne Avenue, small, but that was the busiest place for all the young guys.
This photo shows Richard Vanik leaning on a Ford Fairlane. According to Janet, he’s around 13 in this photo, so he probably wasn’t driving this beast. (Image courtesy of Janet Divel)
We all had things happen to us, good and not so good, but I really believe all of us in the neighborhood would have not wanted to grow up anywhere else.”