A 10-foot sun goddess bobs and weaves down Park Heights Avenue. Her purple and green plumage competes with her gold lame body for attention.
Behind her is a small army of "masqueraders" clad in uniforms of yellow spandex, helmets, shields and spears. They're dancing to an infectious calypso beat. Arms painted with gold glitter wave in the air, and hips shake.
Just when it seems the music can't get any louder, a 16-wheel flatbed truck equipped with a disc jockey and high-wattage speakers rolls by. Is that thumping in your chest or just the bass from the soca music blasting?
That was just the beginning of a parade yesterday along a 2-mile stretch of Northwest Baltimore as natives of the West Indies inaugurated a parade route and carnival grounds for their 15th annual Caribbean Carnival, a three-day festival of food, music and dancing that runs through today.
After years of searching for a permanent home for the festival, organizers think they've found it on a Pimlico Race Course parking lot, at Belvedere and Park Heights avenues.
"This is a new beginning for us and maybe a new beginning for Park Heights," said Anthony McFarlane, chairman of the recently formed Baltimore Caribbean Carnival Commission.
"It's definitely the launching of a new era of the carnival -- a good era," said state Del. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, a Baltimore County Democrat.
Since its beginning, the carnival has used several sites, including, for the past several years, Druid Hill Park, which lacked adequate parking.
Until about four months ago, it appeared that there might not be a carnival this year. City officials were leery of letting the carnival return to the park, organizers said. The longtime carnival sponsor, the West Indian National Association, had disbanded, leaving bills unpaid.
But several leaders in the Caribbean community united to keep the carnival going.
They decided that the ideal place would be Park Heights, which has a concentration of businesses owned by Caribbean natives and residents.
Several elected officials, including Nathan Pulliam, a native of Jamaica, and Mayor Kurt. L. Schmoke, asked Pimlico Race Course majority owner Joe DeFrancis to permit the use of the parking lot for the carnival.
Yesterday, the whirlwinds of music, wild colors and dancing sweeping up Park Heights Avenue seemed right at home as residents ran beside the marching units and "bands," clapping their hands or dancing to the island music.
On the steps of Good Shepherd Baptist Church, in the 3500 block of Park Heights Ave., Deborah Logan and her three preschool children bounced to reggae.
"I love it," Logan said. "Makes me feel like I'm in the Bahamas."
Near the racetrack, the air was perfumed with spicy foods for sale at booths operated mostly by local people. A few dollars will buy a plate of jerk chicken or curried goat with a side order of fried plantains, and nonalcoholic ginger beer to wash it down.
A number of area leaders welcomed the carnival to Park Heights and said they hoped it would spur development there, especially along the parade route, which is dotted with boarded-up houses and businesses.
"This could be a boost" to help get a revitalization effort off the ground, said Karen Evans, executive director of Northwest Baltimore Corp., an umbrella organization of 60 neighborhood associations and other groups.
Evans noted that there has been talk of creating a "Little Jamaica" in the area for years.
"The mayor thinks it will be good for the Park Heights community to have such a large festival take place there," said mayoral spokesman Clinton R. Coleman.
The Carnival Commission hopes to make the local event to one of international significance. Bus loads of West Indies natives from New York and other U.S. and Canadian cities regularly come to Baltimore for the carnival.
The carnival continues today from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. on the Pimlico Race Course parking lot at Park Heights and Belvedere avenues.
Pub Date: 9/07/97