The Imminent Decline of Pikesville

The 50’s had never ended in Pikesville. Every child birthed there is a scion sworn at his Bar-Mitzvah to uphold the white picket eruv of the Jewish-American dream; a separate but greater than equal Semitic society of doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, realtors, executives, businessmen, stockbrokers, bankers and accountants.

The neighborhood begins right at the Pimlico Racetrack – at the intersection of Park Heights Avenue and Northern Parkway. It follows the avenue north for another dozen miles – well past Garrison Forest Road and trailing off into the neither regions of Baltimore County farmland. These days, “Greater Pikesville” takes in Mt. Washington, Garrison, Fort Garrison, Owings Mills, Reisterstown, and Glyndon. This road is the lifeblood of Jewish Baltimore; as much a lifeblood to this tiny Jewish community as The Nile to Egypt, The Moldau to Czechs, and The Vistula to Poles. In the fertile crescent that surrounds Park Heights Avenue live 93,400 Jews, only 5,200 of which live beneath the Federal Poverty Line. Drive any Friday night around 7 o’clock within a half mile around the intersection of Slade and Greenspring Avenues, you’ll have to stop in the middle of the road a dozen times to accommodate all the Shomer Shabbos Jews crossing the street to get to and from Shul. The national statistic of intermarried Jews is roughly 50%. In Baltimore, the number of intermarried Jews is 20%. Of families with two Jewish parents, a margin of error around 100% have some form of Jewish education.

Only sixty-five years ago the entirety of this land belonged to a few farmers. In the meantime grew as perfectly realized a vision of the American dream as exists in the whole country. Until recently, you may have heard of crime in the area, but it never seemed to happen to Jews. You may have heard of drugs, but you’d have to go outside the neighborhood to find a real supplier.  You might have heard of free love and extra-marital affairs, but the stories are so few that they seem to be the exception that proves the rule, and the rule is this:

The 60’s never hit Pikesville. It is a place so bound by conventions, routine, and expectations that rebellion is virtually impossible within its town limits. Children were raised not so much to be adults as they were to be naches-generating machines who accumulate achievement after achievement for their parents and grandparents to brag and kvell about.

Can you blame them? No success was more well earned. No ethnic group save African-Americans paid for the American Dream in more blood, sweat and toil than Jews the world over. This was the pricetag for our unprecedented success, and so steep was it that it’s lasted now for three years past a complete biblical threescore and ten. But there can only be two explanations for any community to experience the Postwar boom for nearly seven decades:

1. Jews were too new to America to see yet the problems that lurk within the American Dream.
2. The American Dream actually succeeded here.

For over a century, Jews worked in sweatshops, stores, factories and industry. And even those situations were preferable to the origins from which they arrived. By the millions they left countries in which they were persecuted, discriminated, exploited and massacred. In their moments of deepest reverie, they must have dreamt of building a community exactly like Pikesville – a place where Jews could flourish free from want and molestation. It must have sustained them to have an idea that some distant ancestor might have a chance to build a community exactly like ours. And like all great dreams, perhaps the most damaging thing to happen to it was that it came true.

At the heart of our town lies the slightly ridiculous idea of an America for Jews. As many subcultures of Jews live in Pikesville as there are ethnic subcultures: Modern Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox, Lubavitch, Messianic, Conservative, Reform, Conservadox, Reformative, Reconstructionist, Secular, Soviet Emigre, Israeli emigre, Holocaust Survivors, Sephardic, Mizrahi, Italian, even, God help us, Republicans. In its absurd way, the Jewish diversity of Pikesville is as diverse as America itself. But now that the first Jewish generation raised North of the Pimlico Racetrack approach Social Security age, it finds itself as much on the precipice of decline as its macroscopic counterpart. Baltimore can only decay for so long before its most promising children leave for better cities. The younger generation of Baltimore Jews never knew a time when Baltimore was not a dying metropolis. The best and the brightest of my generation descended like flocks on New York, Boston, DC, even Philadelphia. Their grandparents slaved their way into the middle-class, but the grandparents had neither the money nor the connections to send their children to anything but state schools. Their parents slaved their way into the upper-middle class, and they did have the money and connections to send their children to Ivy League schools. Their children will be among the best and brightest of a city that can provide them with a greater future. In our generation more than any other, the average Jew has his and her chance to take a place among the world’s elite. From here, there is no mobility for Pikesville but down. In another half-century, Pikesville will be just another Lakewood, a place where few Jews are left but frum families, each with ten children, some of which can only be provided for by the meagerest stipend, viewed by their neighbors with the kind of suspicion for their insularity that seems ever closer to antisemitism.

Every non-frum shul in Pikesville seems to have begun because of a fight with another shul. But by the 1950’s, there was room for them all to flourish. Every Baltimore shul grew so enormous that they all partook of an arms race to build the biggest, most ostentatious Jewish cathedral; Jewish retorts to the Gothic cathedrals of Western Europe to which their newly wealthy members were finally permitted to travel. Every one of them within a half-mile of one another at the intersection of Park Heights Avenue and Stevenson Road; and every one of them seems like gauntlet thrown down to one another: “Top Us!” But the giant main sanctuaries of Pikesville, stupendous monuments to 1950’s optimism, designed by some of the world’s most famous architects; don’t even draw anything close to a capacity crowd on the High Holidays. The trends for synagogue membership go increasingly down: Around 2000, Reform Jews accounted for 36% of Jewish Baltimore, just ten years later, that number was 27%! In another generation, what congregation will even have the money to keep these buildings going? The number of Jews 85 and over went up 160% in the same ten year period. With Baby Boomers reaching their senior citizenship, 160% seems like a very conservative estimate of the aging that’s coming.

The story of Pikesville is the Jewish rendering of the American story in its Golden Age, and like the Golden Age of America, it’s living on borrowed time. In a hundred years, it will probably be yet another Jewish place where it once seemed like we could finally put down roots and rest from the exhaustion of being the world’s most unwelcome guests,  but like everywhere else in Jewish history, it’s probably yet another waystation on the long journey whose destination we’re assured exists, yet have to believe in with so little evidence.


About the Author
Evan Tucker, alias A C Charlap, is a writer and musician residing in Baltimore. He is currently composing music for all 150 Biblical Tehillim. A Jewish Music Apollo Project - because "They have Messiah, we have I Have a Little Dreidel." He is currently on #11. Eight of the first ten are pretty avant garde, but they're going to get more traditional as he gets further in. Evan also has a podcast called 'It's Not Even Past - A History of the Distant Present' which is a way of relating current events to history and history to current events. Most importantly, he is also currently working on a podcast called Tales from the Old New Land, fictional stories from the whole of Jewish History. The podcast is currently being retooled, the link to the new version will be up in the next month or so.