May 1, 2015 / 5:53 AM / 4 years ago

A barber's half-century of clipping hair in a changing Baltimore

BALTIMORE (Reuters) - The view from Lenny Clay’s barbershop in a neighborhood just west of downtown Baltimore is bleak. Grass grows through the cracks of a broken sidewalk and weeds cover an empty lot where a row house once stood. Sometimes, the teenagers on the street are just talking to their friends; sometimes they’re selling drugs.

Lenny Clay is seen at his barber shop in Baltimore, Maryland April 29, 2015. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

“Back in the ‘60s I couldn’t keep the politicians out of here,” Clay, now 80, said. “Now none of them will come.”

In 1961, when Clay opened Lenny’s House of Naturals in this corner storefront, the neighborhood was busy, bright, full of hard-working black families and black-owned businesses. And Clay’s barbershop was at the center of things. His clients included prominent local and national politicians, the basketball star Earl “the Pearl” Monroe - even Oprah Winfrey, he says, came in for haircuts during the 1970s.

As Clay snipped and trimmed, his clients poured out their problems and talked about the city and about civil rights. In his autobiography, Monroe described Clay as “always there for me,” which was why, when Monroe bought himself a Rolls Royce, he gave his Cadillac Eldorado to Clay.

On Wednesday, visitors who stopped by the shop wanted to talk about the city’s recent unrest and how it was different from the riots that erupted in Baltimore in 1968, following the death of the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

“In the ‘60s, we were fighting for equality,” said Sterling Brunson, 50. “Now we’re fighting for survival.”

To the men who gathered at the House of Naturals Wednesday, the story of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old black man whose death from injuries he sustained while in police custody, was not surprising. What did surprise them was the intensity of the media attention focused on the violence that shook Baltimore Monday night.

And the men don’t expect the ensuing protests to change much. After all, they noted, the much more widespread unrest in 1968 didn’t lead to long-term improvements in the lives of poor, black families.

“Most people under 50 have never seen this before,” he said of the clashes between young Baltimore residents and police. “During the ‘68 riots they had the National Guard on every corner. You’d see them chasing people across that lot” - he gestured out the window - “with their bayonets, and the people were carrying TVs, mattresses.”

In the months that followed, some of his customers paid in pints of whiskey looted from shops during the riots. “I was drinking liquor back then, and for six months after the riots every time I took a drink of liquor it tasted like smoke,” he said. “I got a lot of humor out of the riots, as bad as they were.”

Another man, Jessie Bell, 69 broke in: “There was a different thing going on in the riots of ‘68,” he said.

“It was mostly adults back then,” added Tim Bridges, who said he was five when the riots started.

“I was 16,” said Tony Boy Sr., 63. “the National Guard came and they said: ‘You’ve got to go in the house now.’”

Bell said most of the people fighting back then, even if they participated in the looting, wanted an end to the old system of segregation. “Afterward we thought it would be better,” Bell said. “But it got worse.”

In the wake of the riots, a wide boulevard named after King was built, separating Clay’s neighborhood from downtown and from the cluster of University of Maryland buildings nearby. That, Clay said, reduced the flow of customers to the neighborhood’s businesses and drained it of its economic base. Families that could afford to moved away to the suburbs, and shops closed.

“All our businesses are pretty much gone,” Brunson said. “We had black dry cleaners, we had black barbers, we had pretty much everything known to man. Now, we’ve got nothing.”

Slideshow (3 Images)

As Baltimore’s economy declined, the men said, its poorest black residents grew more and more isolated, and their relations with police and city officials worsened. In 2009, Clay’s arm was broken when an officer threw him to the ground during a traffic stop. There were protests then, too. In 2013, Baltimore paid Clay $63,000 to settle a lawsuit over the incident.

On Wednesday, the power in Clay’s shop was out - he had forgotten to pay his electrical bill - but it didn’t matter; soon the building where the shop is located will be torn down to make way for a new development and Clay will have to retire or open up somewhere else.

“I wish you could make your skin black for 24 hours,” he said to a reporter. “You wouldn’t believe how fast you’d move to be white again.”

Reporting By Emily Flitter. Editing by Sue Horton

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