If you look at Baltimore from the sky, three adjacent neighborhoods appear as a dark green wedge on patchy beige. These three neighborhoods—Roland Park, Guilford, and Homeland—are in the north-central part of the city. And that green wedge is where the tree line thins, where you cross east on York Road or west on Falls Road or south on University Parkway into poorer, blacker neighborhoods.
If you cross east or west or south, the air gets dirtier, too. Asthma rates soar by about 70 percent, though Baltimore’s world-famous hospitals have simply found the problem more cost-effective to ignore than to treat. Food deserts cause rates of diabetes to multiply by three, four, five. Within the green wedge, the average life expectancy is 84, on par with the average life expectancy in Japan. But in 14 Baltimore neighborhoods (all outside the green wedge), the average life expectancy is lower than in North Korea. Eight Baltimore neighborhoods have lower average life expectancies than war-torn Syria.
According to the 2010 census, the 21210 zip code—which consists of Roland Park and parts of Homeland and Guilford—is more than 80 percent white. The median household income is $85,967. This seems low, considering that houses there tend to list in the high six figures and the low seven figures, and the going rate for private day schools in the neighborhood is around $30,000. Nonetheless, $85,000 is still more than the $24,374 median household income in a poor area like Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park, which is 96.7 percent black.
The Baltimore of the outsider’s imagination is the Baltimore of The Wire: a post-industrial hellscape where black residents feud over drug territory and execute each other with nail guns in vacant rowhouses. It’s true that Baltimore as a whole is majority black, and that many of its neighborhoods are burdened by violence and poverty unknown in other developed nations. But a more important truth is that Baltimore is a city of profound racial and wealth inequality, often viscerally so. And it was deliberately made that way, though that history has remained something of a secret for 127 years.
The only way to make your life mean anything in America is to get rich, and that’s what Edward Bouton was trying to do in the late 1800s. And so like a biblical patriarch he left behind his job at the grocery business and his nighttime legal studies and his stint as a newsboy and wandered west in search of work, from the warehouses and stockyards of his native Kansas City out across the newly annexed plains until he reached Colorado, where he settled in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains to herd sheep and cattle beneath an unencumbered sky.
He returned to Kansas City and took a job in real estate. It was a boom time there, and Bouton waded out into the rye prairies at the edges of the swelling city to look for land that could be bought subdivided and sold to eager buyers. And he was a good salesman, until he went too far out into the country where nobody was buying, which nearly ruined him. He moved to Baltimore with his young wife Luella on the strength of his reputation. You might call him a serial entrepreneur.
In those days the land in downtown Baltimore smelled like human waste, like fish parts, like dead animals, like the effluvium of the millions of ships that came and went and came and went from the harbor, once arriving full of slaves and leaving full of cured tobacco, and later arriving full of cotton and leaving full of sailcloth.
These smells mixed with the runoff from the cotton mills that lined the Jones Falls, that stream water commingling with bleaches and dyes, with fly ash and boiler slag left over from the millions of pounds of coal that powered the looms late into the night to make cotton duck sailcloth.
All around the lower-lying parts of the city, wretched rowhouses crowded together like crooked teeth, infilled and and packed to capacity with immigrants from Poland and Ireland and Russia and black migrants from the American South, or black natives of the city who were only freed in 1864, nearly a year after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Typhoid fever, cholera, malaria, and yellow fever were rampant.
“Open drains, great lots filled with high weeds, ashes and garbage accumulated in the alleyways,” opined The Baltimore News on the topic of the impoverished Pigtown neighborhood in 1892, “cellars filled with filthy black water, houses that are total strangers to the touch of whitewash or scrubbing brush, human bodies that have been strangers for months to soap and water, villainous looking negroes who loiter and sleep around street corners and never work.”
The late 19th century was the era of germ theory, eugenics, and hygiene-obsessed progressive reformers. It was also an era in which there was a mass delusion of reverse causality, in which the abject conditions endured by the black and immigrant poor were taken as evidence of their inherent uncleanliness. (Not that things have changed much since. I grew up in an affluent part of Baltimore County, and a common refrain I remember in reference to the poorer parts of the city was “Look at how those people keep their neighborhoods.”)
The wealthy feared the city and its contaminants. But the city was the major economic node, and even many affluent people had no choice but to spend time there. And Edward Bouton—like any good American—knew a potential market when he saw one.
The Roland Park Company was incorporated in 1891 as a joint venture between the Lands Trust Company of London, who provided much of the capital necessary to purchase the original land; Jarvis and Conklin, a Chicago investment firm; and a group of Baltimore landowners and investors. Much of the land that would become Roland Park belonged Robert Goodloe Harper, a general whose family owned multiple tobacco properties on the Eastern shore as well as, at one point, the slaves necessary to run the operation. The land that would become Guilford belonged to A.S. Abell, who owned the Baltimore Sun. And the land that would become Homeland belonged to David Maulden Perine, Baltimore’s register of wills.
“They owned essentially mansions on large tracts of land,” says Paige Glotzer, author of the forthcoming book Building Suburban Power, a history of the area. “These [were] really wealthy people, most of whom made their money from owning slaves. Even after the 1860s when slavery was illegal, most of these people were Confederate sympathizers.”
The neighborhood of Roland Park was born atop a high sylvan ridge populated with groves of chestnut trees, old growth poplars and oaks, huckleberry bushes and blackberry bushes, and a burbling spring that flowed from a moss-covered rock. At the time this area was north of Baltimore, though it was retroactively annexed into the city in 1918.
Edward Bouton became the Roland Park Company’s first president. The Roland Park Company employed the landscape design firm run by John Charles Olmstead and Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., whose father designed Central Park. The Olmsteads shaped the land according to their principles of Picturesque landscaping. They made promenades and dells of it. They named all the streets: Deepdene Road, St. Johns Road, Edgevale Road, Beechdale Road, and they named the stately thoroughfare Roland Avenue.
The Baltimore Country Club was built: an imposing red brick clubhouse with high arch windows looking out upon the club’s internationally-renowned golf and racquet facilities. At one point, letters were sent to Bailey Banks and Biddle regarding the manufacture of trophies for a tournament. Four Protestant churches were built, and then the zoning laws were changed so that no other houses of worship could be established.
And of course mansions were built—turreted Queen Annes with elaborate millwork porches, great brick Georgians with rows of slate-covered dormers, Regency-style homes with columned porticos like wedding cakes. Roland Park soon became synonymous with wealth and taste, and homes sold quickly. This success spurred the Roland Park Company to develop the adjacent neighborhoods of Guilford and Homeland, which boasts perhaps even finer houses than the ones in Roland Park.
“The developers and the Roland Park Company would take hundreds of acres, hire planners, build it up essentially from scratch,” Glotzer says. “That meant they had almost complete control in setting community standards. A lot of that was predicated around, ‘How to do we advertise to wealthy, native-born Baltimoreans? How do we create ourselves as an alternative to living in the city at the turn of the century?’”
As early as 1893, Bouton wrote to his lawyers to inquire about the legality of using racially restrictive covenants in the Roland Park Company’s housing deeds. His lawyers told him that such a clause would be illegal. But in 1910, Bouton banned black people from purchasing the Roland Park Company’s homes anyway.
“He did so for competitive reasons: with rival suburbs rising in numbers, he wanted Roland Park and Guilford to be known as the most exclusive in the city,” journalist Antero Pietila wrote in his 2010 book Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City.
In 1913, Bouton banned home sales to Jews, which Pietila believes demonstrated that “a belief was taking hold in real estate that Jews, in addition to blacks, were bad for property values.” And so Roland Park, Guilford, and Homeland became some of the first American neighborhoods to use racially-restrictive covenants in their housing deeds.
According to Glotzer, when Roland Park was constructed, a small number of black residents who lived on the land were evicted. They migrated down the hill, where they settled in the community of Cross Keys. Many of them returned to Roland Park later—as domestics working in the mansions. In 1908, after a dog bit a boy in Roland Park, an armed volunteer watchman descended the hill to Cross Keys, where he shot and killed four dogs.
The Roland Park Company was so devoted to ensuring that their neighborhoods remain racially pure that they employed a private investigator whose job it was to evaluate the racial fitness of prospective homebuyers. Edith McHenry, known as “the female investigator,” would arrive unannounced at the houses of prospective Roland Park Company homebuyers to observe their habits and appearances. She would then transmit this information back to the Company for review. Prospects who were not considered acceptable were condemned to the “exclusion file.”
“Find out he is Jewish, so am dropping him,” wrote McHenry on February 16, 1929 of Mr. Maxwell Zurnduff.
“These people are unquestionably Greeks,” she wrote on April 2, 1930 after observing the family of one M.T. Cavacos. “While they are neat and respectable do not believe we would be justified in selling them.”
“MR. SPRINGER IS JEWISH AND THEY CANNOT BE SOLD,” she wrote on September 27, 1926.
The final entry, from 1944 (three years after the death of Edward Bouton), is a denial of sale to famed Chinese-American physician Dr. Bacon F. Chow. “In view of racial considerations, he advise no further contacts here. DROP,” she wrote.
Chow was, at the time, considering a position at the Johns Hopkins department of biochemistry.
Edward and Luella Bouton lived in a house near the Baltimore Country Club known as Rusty Rocks, which was known for its terraced wildflower gardens that Luella designed. Luella was a social fixture in the neighborhood, hosting events related to gardening and preservation, and founding the Women’s Club of Roland Park, which today still operates out of its original building on Roland Avenue. Edward died in 1941, and Luella died a decade later in 1951.
Racially restrictive covenants received a blow in the form of the 1948 Supreme Court decision Shelley v. Kraemer, which ruled that courts could not enforce racially-restricted covenants in real estate. In 1959, after years of financial turmoil, the Roland Park Company disbanded. And in 1968, the Fair Housing Act banned discrimination in renting, buying, and securing financing for housing based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability and the presence of children (at least in theory).
And yet the legacy of the Roland Park Company lives on.
It lives on in Baltimore, of course, where you can feel the effects of the segregation it forged as you cross York Road or Falls Road or University Parkway. But perhaps more importantly, the neighborhoods of the Roland Park Company served as models of residential segregation for cities across America, from Los Angeles and Cleveland to Queens and Bouton’s own Kansas City.
“I noticed when I went to other archives and looked at other developers, they all mentioned Roland Park as a model,” Glotzer says. “So in the early 20th century, this was an extremely well-known set of neighborhoods amongst other developers.”
The Roland Park Company was influential at the federal level, too. The race-centric community standards pioneered by the Roland Park Company helped influence the adoption of the redlining maps used by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC). And Guy T. O. Hollyday got his start at the Roland Park Company before serving as commissioner of the Federal Housing Administration in 1953 and 1954.
“You can’t separate out the idea of a free market and government and policy,” says Glotzer. “There’s always this ongoing interaction between the way developers are working and shaping city space and the way that that’s affecting and creating policy.”
This is true even today, and even if you don’t live in the suburbs. In fact, if you live in almost any American city, you are living in a place where city governments and private developers collaborate, treating neighborhoods as investments and marketing them as commodities, pushing rents through the roof, and making a diaspora of neighbors who have resided there for generations. The Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront in Brooklyn was rezoned from industrial to mixed-use in 2005, which paved the way for a proliferation of luxury condos. Later, Goldman Sachs and BFC Partners underwrote the transformation of Crown Heights from a working class Caribbean and Hasidic neighborhood into its current incarnation.
21st century gentrification might seem a world apart from the fin de siècle founding of a Baltimore garden suburb, but at the end of the day, it’s just another race-related American marketing scheme.
Many thanks to Paige Glotzer for sharing her research and time.