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James Prettlow
Remembering East Baltimore
Though nostalgic about his old neighborhood, this maintenance worker has high hopes for the new Biotech Park

Karen Boyle
James Prettlow points to the area he once called home.


Like many employees on the East Baltimore campus, James Prettlow grew up in the shadow of The Johns Hopkins Hospital. The strapping maintenance worker at the School of Medicine’s Preclinical Teaching Building has vivid memories of his childhood in the 1950s and ’60s. And, though wistful about the good times in the closely knit neighborhood, Prettlow recalls the insidious drug and crime culture that came to dominate it. Looking out on that stretch of cleared land where the Biotech Park will rise, Prettlow tells his story.


I was born in 1949 and grew up on Madison Street, around where the Broadway Research Building stands today. It was a great place to grow up. We played on McDonald Street constantly, racing up the alley onto Madison and then back down McDonald. Everybody got ballbearing No. 5 skates for Christmas. We’d skate down the hill from the top of McDonald to Ashland Avenue.

The neighbors all knew you, so if you got into trouble, you’d be disciplined by the person who caught you. But my parents were plenty tough. And my grandma lived right next door. My father worked for Bethlehem Steel; my mother was a homemaker. I’m one of six kids—three girls, three boys. The kids shared two bedrooms. My two brothers and I slept in one room; my three sisters in the other. Each room had only one large bed.

Come summer, with no air conditioning or fans, we’d have to open the two big front windows. My mom would let us sleep right on the porch. We’d watch the sun come up.

Holidays were magical. My mom would bake pies and cakes and fill the house with a wonderful aroma. On Halloween, we’d walk to Broadway, where the students and doctors lived. They had parties and would dress up. Some gave us candy or soda. We’d run errands for them and they’d give us a quarter—big money in those days.

We spent lots of time at the firehouse, three doors from home. They let us slide down the pole. The neighborhood, which was mostly African American, was bustling and alive, with neon signs everywhere. Students lived on the north side of Madison. Older folks lived on the lower side. The area around Broadway was predominantly white, and the stores were owned mostly by Jewish people. Our favorite corner shop was Izzy’s, and we liked to hang out at Arundel Ice Cream and the Park Movie, where you could see three movies for 15 cents on Saturdays.


Karen Boyle
An old photo captures the tightly knit neighborhood. (Courtesy of Medical Archives, Barbara Young collection)

But by the 1960s, even before I hit junior high school, things started to get bad. Drug dealers were taking over the corners. The guys I used to hang out with started to look older, haggard. We stopped feeling safe and had to be home before dark.

And we were all getting tired of the rats. They’d congregate in the walls near the commode pipes. My dad would scatter them with a stick, but they always came back. My older sister got bitten by a rat and had to go to Hopkins’ ER. My mom ordered us not to leave our beds without shoes, but one night I went to the bathroom barefoot. I pulled the string to turn on the light. Suddenly a rat ran right across my feet. I shrieked till my father came. I was afraid of the dark for many years after that.

That was the last straw for my mom. In 1969, we found a much nicer place on Potomac Street, in Belair/Edison. I’d visit my old friends, but it didn’t feel the same.

Two years ago, I stood on the PCTB roof and watched the Biotech Park construction crew tear down my school, Public School No. 109 on Broadway and Ashland Avenue. I got all emotional, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that the decay couldn’t go on—the houses were falling apart; drugs and crime were out of control. There was no alternative.

I wouldn’t trade my childhood, but things changed. With the Biotech Park, the neighborhood will come alive again.

Once on the roof I noticed a couple of crows descending on my old neighborhood. It made me think of vultures—like you’d see after an animal dies. That’s when it hit me: This neighborhood is dead. Finally something good is going to come of those awful, boarded-up houses.

It’s going to be so much better. One day I just might move back.

—As told to Judy Minkove



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