The New Jewish Neighborhood (Part 1)

I live in a Jewish neighborhood – or at least it used to be a Jewish neighborhood.  If you watch Barry Levinson films like Avalon or Liberty Heights, you will see my neighborhood. It’s called Reservoir Hill, but in those days it combined two locales: “Eutaw Place” with its elegant mansions on the grand boulevard and “Lake Drive” which included several blocks east of Eutaw and contains beautiful, but more modest row houses.  I have congregants who still wax poetic about the corner drug store on Whitelock, playing stick ball in the vacant lot at Linden and Brooks or gazing out at the expanse of the city from the Moorish Tower in Druid Hill Park.

For a number of reasons detailed in Antero Pietila’s recent book Not in my Neighborhood, Jews moved generally North and Westward from Reservoir Hill.  By the 1970’s, when Beth Am was founded in the old Chizuk Amuno building, most of the nascent congregation was living in the city, but elsewhere.  In recent years, as Reservoir Hill enjoys a small renaissance, young Jewish singles, couples and families have begun to move back to the neighborhood.

Will Reservoir Hill become a Jewish neighborhood again?  I believe so, but let me be clear about what I mean by this.  Yes, more Jews and Jewish families will move to Reservoir Hill.  They will enjoy our community garden and urban farm.  They will take advantage of our proximity to the JFX and to a beautiful city park with jogging and biking paths, the zoo, a nice pool, tennis courts and play structures. Jews, young and old, will (hopefully) like the idea of living near a vibrant and growing synagogue, as those of us who live in the neighborhood already do.  And they will take advantage of tax credits and incentives to renovate historic homes, investing in their future and the future of an affordable community.

…But, plenty of others will do the same thing, and this is a good thing.  Reservoir Hill will (again, hopefully) never again become the urban ghetto (albeit lovely ghetto) that it once was.  The great promise of my neighborhood is that, in a provincial and still largely segregated city like Baltimore, Reservoir Hill is diverse.  We are diverse ethnically, racially and socioeconomically.  We are young and old, Jewish, Christian and Muslim.  This is our strength and our great challenge: to harness the energy of such a community to help refine and improve urban living for all Baltimoreans.   

From my perspective this requires us, the Jewish community of Reservoir Hill – and perhaps urban-dwellers around the country – to reframe the entire notion of a “Jewish Neighborhood.”  Where once a Jewish neighborhood was defined by a preponderance of Jews, I would humbly suggest that we now focus not just on Jewish quantity, but on Jewish quality, not only on Jewish community but a community infused with Jewish values – among which are pluralism, education, kindness, social-justice and tolerance.

This is the New Jewish Neighborhood.  More to come….

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