October 13, 2015

Paul Simon exhibit turns Jonestown into Graceland

The Jewish Museum of Maryland has "reason to believe, we all will be received, in Graceland." The reason is their new Paul Simon exhibit, which as expressed in one of his most famous songs, hopes to attract "poorboys and pilgrims with families... going to Graceland" - part of the museum's effort to create a new recognition of its community and heritage.

A big guitar on the roof of the Jewish Museum of Maryland signifies the Paul Simon exhibit.
One of hundreds of units of new "socially engineered" housing is to the left.
Attman's Deli with its Kibbutz Room is in the right foreground. Numerous vacant lots remain.

The museum is located in Jonestown, a neighborhood which has experienced tumultuous changes amid ongoing identity crises since the Lloyd Street Synagogue first opened in 1845.

The Jewish community dispersed long ago for promised lands elsewhere. In the 1950s, there was little enough remaining from various population flows that the area was almost totally rebuilt for low income high-rise public housing "projects".

The failure of these low income housing "projects" was then reflected in the social upheavals of the 1960s, intertwined with a musical revolution led in part by Paul Simon (and another Jewish-American Bob Dylan).

Paul Simon was looking to find himself in another of his most famous songs, "America", and Jonestown has also been looking.

The "projects" were blown up in 2001. They have now faded into history along with the open fields along the New Jersey Turnpike, hitchhiking and smoking cigarettes on a bus, as Simon sang as he "looked for America".
Last moments of the Jonestown low income high rise "projects" as implosion begins.
The Jonestown high rise low income "projects" were replaced by social engineering of a different sort - rowhouses whose mix of residents' incomes were carefully calibrated in a very calculated attempt at social unity.

Jonestown is now a neighborhood of static unearthly calm where the old Lloyd Street Synagogue stands out from the new rowhouses. It's right next to Baltimore's celebrated Inner Harbor, but in some sense, it's an eternity away.

Jonestown is also a marked contrast to "Little Italy", the neighborhood just to the south, which has tenaciously held on to its ethnic identity and historic housing over the decades, surviving a period when flaunting "ethnic purity" (as President Carter once called it) precipitated widespread backlash.

Such cultural identity is now treated like a brand. The main thing now perceived as Italian in Little Italy is the restaurants. Jonestown culture is now also relegated to the far more visible Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. It now seems unlikely any neighborhood will be renamed something like "Little Israel" or "Little Africa".

Social engineering, whether good or bad, is like a brain transplant. It makes it easier to compartmentalize memories of history and where the city's people have been. As of now, people don't live in Jonestown because of the museum, synagogue, corned beef emporiums, Shot Tower, the old house where the "Star Spangled Banner" flag was stitched, or other organic urban institutions holding on, but simply because they had the right income to fit the socially engineered demographic parameters.
Jonestown "projects" implosion in 2001, with the Jewish Museum of Maryland engulfed inside the cloud of smoke. 
When the Jews moved out and then again when the low income housing residents moved out, and the newly pre-qualified residents meeting the demographic standards moved in, they were like shifting ingredients of an ongoing social experiment.

The Maryland Jewish Museum is still looking for Jonestown, just as Paul Simon was looking for America, and the entire City of Baltimore continues trying to find itself after its recent tumultuous Freddie Gray "unrest" and its subsequent curfew, first mandated and then self-imposed.

The Graceland that Paul Simon longed for was not the one that tourist hucksters created after Elvis Presley died. The musical revolution started by Elvis and others in the 1950s, setting the stage for Paul Simon, was a product of complex and seemingly magical social currents that we still can only partially explain. There was nothing calculated about it.

So is the Jonestown calm real or contrived, temporary or permanent, static or dynamic? In a sense, the most "real" part of Jonestown is now the vacant lots, the missing pieces through which the course of the neighborhood is still to be defined, and for which there is still no economic justification or impetus for development, in marked contrast to the nearby waterfront building boom.

Paul Simon described the calm as "Peace Like a River":

Peace like a river ran through the city
Long past the midnight curfew
We sat starry-eyed
Oh, we were satisfied
And I remember
Misinformation followed us like a plague
Nobody knew from time to time
If the plans where changed
Oh, if the plans were changed
You can beat us with wires
You can beat us with chains
You can run out your rules
But you know you can’t outrun the history train
I‘ve seen a glorious day...
Four in the morning
I woke up from out of my dreams
Nowhere to go but back to sleep
But I’m reconciled
Oh, oh, oh, I’m gonna be up for a while...

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