A Baltimore Jewish Historian

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Eighty-two-year-old Baltimore historian Zeporah (Zippy) Larson has introduced thousands of visitors (and native Baltimoreans) to her beloved home city over the course of decades. She’s been named ‘best tour guide’ by two local publications. But she won’t take you to the Inner Harbor.

“I try to talk people out of going on a tour with me,” Larson said. “I tell them there’s a streetcar bus at the Inner Harbor that goes through the city. You see all the tourist attractions. But if you go with me, you aren’t going to see any tourists or tourist attractions. If that makes you uncomfortable, you don’t want to go on my tour.”


Zippy explained that she created 55 ways to see Baltimore: “I do the tour for them [that] I’d want them to do for me in another country.” She starts each tour by “customizing it,” asking about her participants’ “background, where they’re from and how much they know. I want people to leave saying ‘I have never been on a tour like this.’”

When she learned that most Baltimore City police recruits leave the city within three years, she approached the commissioner to take 50 recruits and their instructors on an all-day motor coach tour of Baltimore City.

“My idea was to get the recruits to fall in love with Baltimore on one of my tours and decide to stay,” she said. “It’s a waste of money and time to train cops who leave.”

I met Larson in front of the Sagamore Pendry Hotel on Thames Street. The former recreation pier, also the set for television’s “Homicide: Life on the Street,” was an appropriate spot to spend a murderously hot morning. Larson even brought a t-shirt featuring the cast of “Homicide” to show me, as she had helped the show’s creators get to know the area.

Larson smiled up at me from beneath a straw sunhat bedecked with flowers. She carried a cane shaped like a saw.

I thought I knew a fair amount about Fells Point from my high school job as a mate on the Water Taxi, but in the first five minutes of our conversation outside the Sagamore, I learned at least five historical facts that were new to me.

I told Larson I’d never been inside the hotel, so she led me in. As we walked into a refreshing blast of air conditioning, Kevin Plank, Under Armour’s CEO and owner of the hotel, walked out, flanked by security, and disappeared into a black SUV.

From Baltimore to Iran

Plank’s appearance coincidentally underscored Larson’s assertion that Fells Point is no longer the blue-collar neighborhood where Larson grew up “at the foot of Broadway.” She remembers stopping to drink an after-school Coke at her maternal grandfather’s store, just a block from her house. Her grandfather was an immigrant, learning English from Larson by asking her to show him her schoolwork.

Larson attended shul at Congregation Moses Montefiore Amunas Israel on South Smallwood Street, where her grandfather, Rabbi Israel Yoffee, was a spiritual leader.

“I walked there with my Bubbie, Rivkeh Leah Yoffee, on Shabbos morning every week,” she said. “After services, I walked home with her for chicken noodle soup, homemade…in her tiny kitchen [that] had been a [enclosed] porch…It had no heat, but she cooked from scratch every day and it seemed as though the oven was always on.”

Many childhood memories center around Shabbos for Larson.

“I recall my Zadie saying it was more important to observe Shabbos than any of the other holidays. As a kid, I would complain that there was nothing to do on Shabbos, that I couldn’t play or write or do any work or carry anything outside the house…and the day seemed endlessly long,” Larson recalled. “He would explain to me what a day of rest meant. Rest and prayer.”

The one thing that saved Larson from boredom was the delivery of LIFE magazine each Saturday to her grandparents’ home, she would read it cover to cover until sunset marked Shabbat’s end.

Larson attended Western High School, then an all-girls school that had not yet moved to its current location. At the time, girls chose between “a commercial course or an academic course.” Larson was drawn to the academic courses, but her mother told her that “college is a waste of money for a girl.” Though Larson didn’t know if she’d ever attend college or even how to go about making that happen, she took the academic courses anyway.

Zippy Larson shows an aerial photo of the Inner Harbor.

After high school, Larson trained to be a nurse at Sinai Hospital in its former location on East Monument Street. After she graduated at the top of her class and married, Larson and her husband Gus moved to Shiraz, Iran, where her husband tested radar equipment for Westinghouse. It was 1977, two years before Ayatollah Khomeini assumed power.

Iran’s 6,000-year-old culture transformed Larson. She loved bargaining in the market and learned to negotiate like a native. She also learned to tell her own story.

“We were invited to dinner at the University of Pahlavi in Shiraz,” Larson said. “I said something that intrigued the hosts, two Iranian professors from the university, and their reaction was to ask me to be the speaker at the next week’s dinner!”

Though she was nervous, Larson “prepared and gave a talk, using my Zadie as the focus of my talk.”

“I described going to my Bubbe’s house each day after school to get some money: a few pennies from her fat change purse. Then I’d race to Hoffman’s drug store for candy with the pennies,” Larson said.

After her talk, Larson’s hosts asked her to represent Iran at the 1978 Presidential Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.

“Here I was, a Jewish woman, representing Iran at a mostly Christian Presidential Prayer Breakfast,” Larson said with a smile.

Larson found herself on a plane back to the U.S. for a whirlwind three-day affair with “all this pomp and circumstance.”

“Doors opened for you, chauffeurs,” Larson said. “Sitting at the table that was closest to the head table; Billy Graham and Ann Landers close enough to touch. And dinner at the home of a senator; a tour of the Library of Congress with the Head of the Library of Congress. And meeting Tip O’Neal in his ceremonial office. It was quite a week, all because I listened carefully to the conversation that night in Shiraz and added something to the conversation!”

Larson did not remember what she said that prompted a VIP tour response, just “the chance I took to talk about my Jewish grandfather while we lived in Iran.” But the experience changed her life.

“I made up my mind that when I got home, no more nursing,” Larson said. “I’m going to learn American history. I’m going to go to college.”

Larson returned to the U.S. in 1981. The University of Baltimore gave Larson credit for her nursing years and introduced her to both American and Baltimore history. With her voracious appetite for research – she described sitting in a room with a filing cabinet of old letters as a “jackpot” – Larson felt perfectly suited to her calling.

Larson remembered a professor telling her, “You don’t learn history from a book. If you can get the old people to talk to you, that’s the way you become a historian.”

While at Sinai, she said, “I must have asked a thousand people, ‘Do you need a laxative tonight?’ That, [paired with] the negotiation skills I learned in Iran, I realized [that] I could ask anybody anything.”

In 1982, she embarked on a project that would ultimately take her 10 years to complete: interviewing “the old people in the old blue-collar neighborhoods around the river.” Larson began in Little Italy, moved on to Fells Point, and finished in Locust Point. Her interview subjects didn’t know their lives and experiences were stories, but Larson recognized them as such.

“I used to come down at six in the morning and walk these streets. In every one of these neighborhoods there was a local diner,” Larson said. “This was ‘BT’ – before tourism. I’d find the oldest person in the restaurant, sit next to them, and ask questions. Then I’d walk the neighborhood.”

A Little Italy resident summed up her neighborhood’s change during this period, telling Larson, “This used to be a community. Now it’s a commodity.”

Dialing Governor Schaefer

Larson attributed the transformation of Baltimore’s waterfront neighborhoods to a complex interplay of social and economic factors. Some of these, such as Harborplace, were orchestrated by legendary mayor-then-governor William Donald Schaefer, who, surprisingly, became friends with Larson late in his life.

Larson met Schaefer in his Annapolis office during his governer years at an appointment she requested on behalf of a colleague. They got along like two hons on a marble stoop, and their allotted 15-minutes stretched into “an hour and 15 minutes,” Larson remembers.

Years later, Schaefer’s assistant recalled his fondness for Larson, particularly when Schaefer lost the first election of his career against Peter Franchot for comptroller.

Schaefer’s assistant called Larson after the loss, asking Larson to take Schaefer on one of her tours to help alleviate Schaefer’s depressed mood. Larson thought to herself, “She’s out of her mind. What’s he gonna learn from me?”

But the assistant persisted until Larson agreed, instructing the woman to have Schaefer’s driver meet her at the corner of Eastern Avenue and Patterson Park the following Tuesday afternoon. Schaefer never showed up, but the assistant persisted, telling Larson that “You’ve go to do something.”

Knowing Schaefer’s fondness for eating out, Larson, along with Schaefer’s assistant and his driver, conspired to arrange his lunch at the dates, times and locations of Larson’s tour-group lunches.

Schaefer loved encountering Larson’s tour group. After the first time, “he’d be sitting in the restaurant before my motor coach got there.”

“I didn’t tell the people on the bus,” Larson said. “It was a treat for him. For them too.”

Larson and Schaefer became friends. When they ate out, Larson noticed restaurants would try to seat them in the back.

“That’s not where he wanted to be,” Larson said. “He wanted to be by the first table at the front door.”

Larson discovered Schaefer had never been to the tourist information center he was responsible for creating in the Inner Harbor. She decided to take him one spring day.

“He was a little unsteady on his feet,” she recalled. “I took his hand. There were workmen cleaning up the bricks. A workman said, ‘Mr. Schaefer, thank you for all this.’”

Schaefer walked throughout the aisles, collecting brochures and tucking them in his pockets.

When Schaefer became ill, he moved to a nursing home, which he hated.

“I wanted to try to keep him in touch somehow,” Larson said. And she came up with an unusual pick-me-up for him.

“I’d go for walks where I live here along the waterfront,” Larson said. “I had his cell phone number. I’d see someone walking toward me, and I’d begin to dial [his] number on my old flip phone. As they approached me, I’d say, ‘Hi are you from around here? Someone wants to talk to you,’ [then] I handed the phone to them.”

In this way, Larson kept Schaefer “talking to lots and lots of people,” his strongest suit. It’s what they had most in common.

Jaywalking

Larson worries that the millennials who roam her Fells Point neighborhood know too little about Baltimore’s history, their own history. So Larson says she likes to “jaywalk,” a term she borrowed from a Jay Leno bit in which he stops strangers on the street to ask them questions.

Urging me to “be like wallpaper” and not give her away, Larson stopped a young woman wearing running shorts and Ray-Bans walking her dog. The woman, about 20 years old, asked Larson if she was lost. Ignoring the question, Larson asked the woman if she was local. The woman answered yes.

“What’s the name of this body of water here?” Larson asked her.

“That’s the Inner Harbor,” the young woman replied.

“That’s the name of the river?” Larson asked.

“Yes. The harbor.” The young woman pronounced “harbor” slower and louder this time.

Larson smiled, subtly sending a wink in my direction. After the woman was sufficiently reassured Larson wasn’t lost, she continued power-walking her dog.

Larson and I walked in the other direction, following the cobblestoned road that led to the harbor. Or, as it’s known less often than Larson would like, the Patapsco River.

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