'Spiritual warfare' in the shadow of the track

Surrounding the splendor of Preakness—vacant homes, grim poverty.

For one day each year, tens of thousands dressed in natty suits and flowered hats descend on the Park Heights neighborhood to sip cocktails and watch horses fly down a century-old track.

The rest of the year, this pocket of Northwest Baltimore is a place of grim poverty.

Crumbling homes and abandoned businesses ring the streets around the track. About 37 percent of children live below the poverty line, and the life expectancy, 67, is three years shorter than that for the city as a whole. The average annual income is less than $32,000 — about one-fiftieth of the purse claimed by last year's Preakness winner.

Whether the Preakness stays or moves to Laurel, civic leaders hope that Park Heights — a 21/2-square-mile area that encompasses a dozen smaller neighborhoods — is poised for a revival. The city has invested $200 million here in recent years, and has been buying and demolishing buildings to redevelop a 63-acre parcel south of Pimlico Race Course. There are plans to renovate two schools, revamp a recreation center and attract new businesses.

While many of the streets surrounding the track are lined with well-maintained homes, the intersection of Park Heights and Belvedere avenues — once a retail hub — has been decimated by crime and substance abuse.

On a morning a few days before the Preakness, people stagger down the street clutching bottles in black plastic bags, and marijuana smoke wafts from a carryout.

"It's just always a struggle in that area," says Baltimore City Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton, whose district includes the portion of Park Heights south of the track. "Everytime you move up an inch, you get pushed back another inch. It's frustrating."

Like many residents and business owners, Middleton says she has little relationship with the owners of the track. Representatives of the Stronach Group, which owns the track, attended a recent community meeting and discussed plans to move the barns and parking lots and replace them with shops, she says.

Cheo Hurley, executive director of Park Heights Renaissance, the nonprofit charged with implementing the city's master plan for the area, says he has had some "preliminary talks" with the Stronach Group.

"They want to take care of the fabric of the community and improve their property," he says.

A spokesman for the Stronach Group did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Sun.

Many residents see the track as a nonentity. The racing season has shrunk to fewer than 40 days in late spring.

On Hayward Avenue, Anthony and Renita Cummings recall the days when the track was a vital and vibrant part of the neighborhood.

"The Preakness is nothing like it used to be," says Anthony Cummings, 45. When he grew up, in a house on this street, vendors used to line the walkways outside the track on Preakness day. A longer racing season brought visitors to the neighborhood throughout the year.

"It used to be so much fun around here," recalls his wife, 41, who also grew up nearby. Children played hopscotch in the streets, supervised by a close-knit community of parents, she says.

Ronald Billy Sr., 74, president of the Pimlico Merchants Association, describes the battle over the future of Park Heights as "spiritual warfare."

His tailor shop, RRR Alterations at Spaulding and Park Heights avenues, has been a neighborhood fixture since 1971.

Billy moved to Levindale Road in 1965, among the first wave of African-American residents in what had been a primarily Jewish neighborhood. Now Park Heights is about 95 percent African-American, according to city health data.

While the area around Billy's home — a leafy stretch between the track and Sinai Hospital — remains serene, the commercial corridor has fallen into decay.

Drugs hit the neighborhood hard in the 1980s and '90s. News accounts of the time detailed the lives of children lost to drug-fueled violence.

"At one point, if I didn't have to go here, I wouldn't have come in," Billy says.

Crime has fallen dramatically since then, he says.

Both the northern and southern portions of Park Heights have crime rates around the city's average, according to data from University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute.

Reminders of failed revitalization efforts are hard to escape.

Farther up Park Heights Avenue, a faded, hand-painted sign reads "From slavery to drugs to prison to rejuvenation." The business beneath the sign — a Caribbean restaurant — is closed.

In one small shopping center farther up Park Heights Avenue, three businesses have been closed. The fourth, ABC Child Development Center, rings with children's laughter.

The day care center is a refuge for children whose parents are struggling to hold down retail jobs, says director Danita Maryland.

A section of the colorful center is designated the "Night Owl Club" for children whose parents work late. The center opens at 6:30 a.m. and closes at midnight to accommodate parents' shifts at Wal-Mart and fast-food restaurants, Maryland says.

Hurley, the Park Heights Renaissance director, believes that the city's redevelopment efforts will elevate the entire area.

Already, subsidized apartments for seniors have replaced a haven for drugs and violence in the southern portion of Park Heights. The C.C. Jackson Recreation Center is in the midst of a renovation that will turn it into a community hub. The Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation has built a turf field for baseball and football adjacent to the center.

Two elementary schools, Pimlico and Arlington, are slated to become state-of-the-art facilities offering programs for parents and community members. A third school, Langston Hughes Elementary, is scheduled to close at the end of the school year, although parents and community leaders are fighting to keep it open.

More than $10 million in casino revenue has gone to Park Heights since 2012, according to the city housing department. The city is required to devote 75 percent of its portion of the slot-machine money to the Park Heights Master Plan area.

Hurley's group and the city have purchased about 500 properties in the redevelopment zone and begun demolitions. The group has been meeting with residents and developers to solicit ideas for the project, which will redevelop a 40-block area in the heart of Park Heights.

Back on Park Heights Avenue, Shawn Lemon is tidying up the barber shop, Variety Cuttz, that he opened 15 years ago. Although most of the businesses on his block are closed, Lemon holds out hope that the neighborhood will rebound.

"I've seen the neighborhood go up and I've seen it go down," said Lemon, who was grew up here, but is raising his own four children in Randallstown. "I think this area could get back to where it used to be."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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