Got news? Saluting a Baltimore hero

To my amazement, the Baltimore Sun managed to get some newspapers delivered earlier this week — in between the record-shattering snow storms that keep rolling through the Mid-Atlantic region. As I type this, we are in the middle of storm No. 3. and, OMG, the word “snow” is in the Monday forecast.

As I dug into that thin Monday newspaper, I was struck by the power of a story that appeared under the headline, “One man’s fight against redlining.” Here’s the top of that piece:

A small paid notice in Wednesday’s Sun announced the death of Anne Irene Ruth Salzman at Charlestown Retirement Community. She was 97 and “was preceded in death by her husband of fifty years, Sidney Salzman,” the notice said.

Missing was the rest of the story — how the Salzmans in 1941 fought the Federal Housing Administration for the right to live in a neighborhood of their own choosing. Much has changed since then, but studies suggest that each year millions of Americans still face similar discrimination — not by the government, perhaps, but by the real estate marketplace.

In 1941, Anne Salzman and her husband wanted to buy 821 Glen Allen Drive, one of seven foreclosed houses in Hunting Ridge, a neighborhood off Edmondson Avenue. Four years earlier, the federal government had prepared lending risk maps for Baltimore and 238 other American cities from coast to coast. It had given to Hunting Ridge its highest ranking, the same rating it bestowed on Guilford, Homeland and Rodgers Forge. Under federal guidelines, such mostly Protestant neighborhoods generally barred “inharmonious elements” — African-Americans and Jews.

In Hunting Ridge, though, the homeowners’ covenant against Jews had expired in 1940.

Sidney Salzman was Jewish and his wife was a Christian and they had always managed to live in Gentile neighborhoods. The bureaucrats were “not impressed.”

Mr. Salzman decided to fight. He repeatedly offered purchase prices verbally suggested by FHA officials, proposing to put nearly half the money down. He was refused each time, even though he had been pre-approved for a mortgage, according to documents in the possession of University of Maryland, Baltimore County professor W. Edward Orser.

Finally, one official, “with evident embarrassment … gave as reason for the turning down of my offer the fact of my Jewish extraction, that it was thought best not to sell one of these properties in a restricted neighborhood to me, that it might affect the sale of other properties, and that the [Charles] Steffey Co. real estate brokers handling the properties strenuously objected to such sale to me, on the same grounds.”

And so the fight began, a pivotal fight in the history of race and religion in this city.

The Salzmans won the fight.

It’s an amazing and important story.

So why did this story have to appear on the newspaper’s op-ed page? Why did it need to end with this credit blurb?

Antero Pietila retired from The Sun after 35 years. His history of Baltimore, “Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City,” will be published later this month. He may be reached at www.anteropietila.com.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am very glad that the newspaper ran this piece — somewhere. However, the piece opens with a reference to factual material, to an event — the death of Anne Irene Ruth Salzman — that provided all of the news hook that was needed for a news feature.

This is a major story. Why wasn’t it played out front, with photos and, online, some kind of video tribute to this couple and the role they played in the history of Baltimore? I assume that retired reporters can still receive or share bylines, or perhaps write sidebars to major stories. Why did this very important subject get shuffled over to the op-ed page? A quick search of the newspaper’s web site found no other references to “Sidney Salzman.”

This is an A1 news feature story if I have ever seen one.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Suzanne

    I think the phrase “retired from The Sun” explains it all. The loss of institutional memory at newspapers these days is nothing short of catastrophic.

    At a smaller paper, you might have seen a submission like this to the op-ed page make its way into the hands of the city desk so that it might be more prominently played.

    But as gutted as it is these days, the Sun probably has enough barriers between news and editorial pages that it was much more difficult for a op-ed piece to get adapted into a news story.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Suzanne:

    That has to be a factor and I get that.

    That’s why I brought up the options of shared bylines and a package that would include a sidebar by the retired writer.

    Sure he pitched this first to the Sunday desk? Surely?

  • Suzanne

    Maybe, maybe not. How long has he been away from the paper?

    I “retired” a scant decade ago from a mid-sized paper in S.C. If I were to come up with a great story for that paper, who would I go to? Thanks to turnover and buyouts, I know almost no one in the newsroom.

    If it pitched it to one of my one or two old friends there, they could make a case for it, but they’re not in a decision-making position. They’re possibly pitching it to a city ed who’s 15 years younger than them, hasn’t lived there very long and tends to roll his eyes at the old-timers’ stuff. Especially if he’s busy handling a big story (like say, snowstorms paralyzing the city).

    I’m not saying that’s what happened, and like you, I think this was a real missed opportunity. The story is amazing. But I can completely see how it happened. I think as their older reporters, editors and librarians bleed away (and I don’t see that changing) newspapers have to come up with some way to prod to their institutional memories to make sure stories like this don’t fall through the cracks.

  • Suzanne

    apologizing in advance for the typos that I’m seeing as I read the above.

    “If I pitched it”

    “prod their institutional memories”

  • Ira Rifkin

    Yes, diminished reportorial resources and lost institutional memory play a role here.

    But I’m betting the the weather also played a role – whatever reporters the poor Sun has left on staff were probably dealing with snow-related stories.

    Plus, Baltimore was in the midst of a mayoral change, the old one having been booted out because of criminal conduct.

    Moreover, the Sun no longer pays for opeds (other than syndicated material), making this coverage approach even more inviting. For a strugggling paper, this probably was the best they could muster.

    We need to cut them some slack. And perhaps shed some tears for what used to be considered SOP journalism.

  • Peter

    If you look at the front pages of the Sun over the past week, it’s been dominated by weather, an exclusive investigation, and a report on the new council president. It’s not a surprise that the story written by a former reporter trying to promote a book ended up on the op-ed page, no matter how good the story.

  • http://www.anteropietila.com Antero Pietila

    Thank you for including me in the conversation. What happened with the Salzman piece, apparently, is that no one remembered. Which is not surprising when you consider that the events took place seven decades ago.
    The Salzmans never sought publicity; for that reason there was nothing in the morgue. Even if they had, they would have been dismissed as crackpots amid the racial and anti-Semitic religious bigotry that prevailed in Baltimore in 1941.
    In fact, I learned about their fight against the FHA by sheer accident. Maybe six years ago, I was talking with W. Edward Orser, author of Blockbusting in Baltimore: The Edmondson Village Story, and somehow all this came up. He had the documentation, which is extremely rare since it covers both sides of the dispute. Bingo.
    Certainly The Sun has two of the best obituary writers in business, Fred Rasmussen and Jacques Kelly. Here is a sample of Fred’s recent mastery: http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-county/bal-md.ob.co.selenkow24jan24,0,2135327.story
    Of course, it all depends on who you write for. Here’s is a wrestling magazine’s take: http://slam.canoe.ca/Slam/Wrestling/2010/01/19/12534316.html
    But that’s why I am writing. Instead, I want to call your attention to the examination of the religious/communal response to racial change in Baltimore. That is one of the most compelling parts of my book.
    My point is that certainly the Baltimore Jewish Council provided outstanding leadership and so did many Christian leaders, headed by Cardinal Lawrence Shehan. Repeatedly, though, they were at odds and out of step with their flocks. All this is detailed in the book.
    If you think the Salzman piece was compelling, read the book and be amazed. I am saying this in the spirit of my publisher who advises me that there is no such thing as shameless self-promotion in book business. Peace.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Peter, et al:

    I live in Baltimore and I am a former copy editor. I understand desk schedules and I have four feet of snow in my yard.

    The timing of this event is before the storm. The planning on Sunday and Monday papers is almost always done the previous week — about Thursday or at the latest Friday.

    I am glad that Mr. Pietila wrote to clarify some things and we will gladly plug his book — again.

    A simple question remains to be asked and he may not want to answer it. Did he call attention to this story, in any kind of contact to the news desk (before approaching op-ed)?

  • http://www.anteropietila.com Antero Pietila

    The answer to that simple question is NO.
    There are several reasons:
    One. I was not writing an obituary. I have done my heavy lifting in researching the book; I am not goint to be an unpaid obituary writer. (Of course I didn’t get paid for the op/ed, either, but I didn’t have to do any new reporting beyond what I had already done for the book).
    Two. I did not contact an obituary writer for the simple reason that too much time had elapsed from Mrs. Salzman’s expiration to get an obit done. (Yes, those are old Sun rules; go figure).
    Three. In trying to figure out who to send an advance copy of my book at The Sun, I hit a brick wall. At this point in my life I am not going to fight with some pinhead who has no understanding of anything I talk to. I know a good story when I see one. If there is a way to get it in the paper, I’ll use whatever avenue looks the most promising.
    That’s it. Nothing more from me on this subject. I am here to sell books.

  • http://www.anteropietila.com Antero Pietila

    I see there are some typos and garble. If that bothers anyone, don’t get old.

  • http://www.anteropietila.com Antero Pietila

    Incidentally, I am writing a daily blog on my amazon author’s page http://www.amazon.com/Antero-Pietila/e/B002RAEZN4/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0
    A different topic each day, including future items about religion.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    ANTERO:

    No more communication necessary. I, for one, plan on ordering the book. I’ll buy you a burrito here in Glen Burnie and we can talk about it.

  • http://www.anteropietila.com Antero Pietila

    Fine. Anyway. I hope to visit the site now and then and not to talk about my book. The only reason I did was that you kind of invited me by commenting on the Salzman article. Peace.

  • Maureen

    Re: turnover

    Given the amount of people in any given job who come from out of town, it’s probably not a problem so much that all the people are new, as that all the people’s grandmas live halfway across the country from Baltimore, or (if originally from Baltimore) have moved to Florida or Arizona.


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