Gracie Marks, 74, tends the community garden behind the 2800 block of Waldorf Ave., proudly pointing out the okra, bell peppers and slick kale peeking from the rich soil.
"I say in the next three to four weeks, we'll be getting string beans and onions, and in the next couple of days, we'll be getting greens," she says, poking the damp ground with her weeding stick. "We'll be eating then, honey. I'll be cooking them boys."
Marks and her husband, George, were the second black family on this block in Park Heights. That was 35 years ago. But the neighborhood has deteriorated since then. Homes sit empty, or have been torn down. The Markses and hundreds of other families have held on.
Now, after a decade of severe decline in the community, Park Heights leaders are trying to bring new life and hope to this piece of Northwest Baltimore bound- ed generally by West Northern Parkway, Wabash and Greenspring avenues and Druid Park Drive. Led by Del. Salima S. Marriott, and supported by City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, they propose making Park Heights a community benefits district, with a $55 to $72 surcharge levied annually on area property owners and merchants.
Successful benefits districts exist in Charles Village and Midtown (encompassing Bolton Hill, Charles North, Madison Park and Mount Vernon-Belvedere) - small- er neighborhoods with better housing stock and less severe problems. The downtown business area also is a special tax district.
But many of the people at a Town Hall meeting last week fumed over the idea of paying more fees, especially when a budget crisis has city officials talking about raising taxes. Success will depend on whether supporters can persuade people such as the Markses, longtime homeowners with a stake in the community, to buy into their effort.
The challenges are many. Dozens of community groups, many no more than a telephone number and an address, have to be brought to the table. This is not a wealthy area. The annual median income in 1990 was slightly more than $21,000.
Some residents are wary of getting involved. They remember the government-funded development corporations that collapsed in the early 1990s amid allegations of financial misconduct. Leaders and activists are not looking to those sorts of agencies to lead the way. They are looking to the owners of the community's approximately 15,000 properties.
In the past decade, Park Heights lost about 8,000 residents, dropping from 37,000 to a little more than 29,000, according to the latest census figures. It was a decline repeated across Baltimore, as once-strong neighborhoods became marginal and, in some cases, deadly. The exodus created a domino effect as population loss translated to fewer resources. City officials are considering closing a public library and two elementary schools in Park Heights.
The deterioration has not stopped George Marks from keeping up his neighborhood. Of course, he mows his patch of lawn - that's a given. He also mows the lawns of the vacant houses on his block and polices the alley. His wife sweeps the gutters on both sides of Waldorf Avenue.
His is a common complaint: "If each and every house would just come out and clean in their front, but these people here ... they just don't want to clean up," said Marks, 72, a retired Bethlehem Steel worker.
Apathy is one problem besetting Park Heights. Department of Public Works officials note that the area has requested six community cleanups this year. By comparison, Patterson Park Rental Association has scheduled 26.
Crime is another problem. The Rev. Junior Lee Gamble, a beloved Baptist preacher, was gunned down there in July 1999, a killing that outraged the community. Earlier this year, a federal jury convicted Levi "Vi" Johnson and Stover "Big Ox" Stockton of conspiring to distribute more than 1 kilogram of heroin. Their gang, known as the Woodland boys, ran a $5,000-a-day operation and waged a ruthless battle for the drug trade around Woodland and Park Heights avenues, a short walk from where Gracie Marks looks after her collard greens.
Harold Alston said that when he moved into the 3400 block of St. Ambrose Ave. three years ago, drug dealers were "all up and down the street, guys blocking off the alley with railroad ties."
He and his mother, Marion Jones, started sweeping up the trash. Every day, they called 911. Soon, the young men nicknamed Jones "Five-O," slang for the police. Within a couple of years, the block was safe. Alston believes God told him to fight for his neighborhood.
"What he said is, 'Take back Park Heights and take it back a block at a time, starting with your block,'" said Alston, who formed the St. Ambrose Community Development Association after a shooting outside his house. "Children are now allowed to come outside and ride bikes in their own community."
Along with crime, problems brought on by grime and blight remain. Diane Frederick, executive director of the Northwest Baltimore Corp., said Park Heights has about 700 vacant houses. Weeds grow in an empty lot. Such lots are common in Park Heights. Overgrown and neglected, they are magnets for litter and rats.
The garden run by the United Hope Community Development Corporation was once such a lot. Viola Bell, United Hope's founder, used a small neighborhood grant, along with civic and corporate support, to have the trash hauled away, the cement dug up and fresh soil brought in. Then Gracie Marks and a handful of others took over. Soon, a garden flourished.
"I saw what we can do with a vacant lot," said Bell. "If we can do that on a small scale, imagine what can be done on a large scale."
Public works officials say they are doing their part. When told of residents' complaints, they note the regular trash pickups, the mechanical sweepers that collect six tons of debris every week, the crew that recently spent three days clearing refuse from an alley behind the 2700 block of Oswego Ave.
Joseph A. Kolodziejski, head of the Bureau of Solid Waste, said that since April 1, sanitation officers have issued 325 citations in Park Heights, 285 of those against residences.
"We can only get Park Heights or any other community to look as good as the people want," he said.
Kevin J. Malachi, who oversees commercial revitalization in the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, said revival of the area's business district depends on community support. The shopping area near Belvedere and Park Heights, with its barbershops and clothing stores, suffered huge setbacks when a McCrory's variety store closed and when Super Pride went out of business last year. The city is working with a developer to bring a supermarket back, but it will take time.
"There is no quick fix for years of neglect," he said.
Ted Laster, economic development coordinator for the Northwest Baltimore Corp., a community services group, said the economic turnaround he and others are working toward will take two to three years. Success in that area could, within an additional two years, bring other stores and conveniences to Park Heights. The proposed benefits district could be key to improving the neighborhood's overall health, he said.
Supporters of the idea held two community meetings last week, presenting the proposal to audiences reluctant to pay an additional tax. They estimate that the proposed surcharge on area properties - ranging from 12 cents to 16 cents per $100 of assessed value - could raise $500,000 to $700,000 a year. The money would be used for community projects agreed upon by a local board of directors and to supplement city services.
The measure needs the support of 58 percent of those voting in a special election scheduled June 28. Final approval lies with the City Council.
James D. Matthews, 66, echoed the concerns of many Park Heights residents who attended Tuesday night's Town Hall meeting. Retired on a fixed income, Matthews bristled at the idea of having another $5 a month taken out of his pocket. "We are allowing the city to get away with doing nothing. We are paying for the services that we are not receiving," he said.
Mark Hughes, 28, intends to vote for the measure. He is a rarity in Park Heights, a young resident involved in his community.
Hughes, president of the Lynview Avenue Block Club, said he has heard the stories of old Park Heights.
"I'm in this for the long haul," he said. "I really want to see the neighborhood get better, and I know it won't get better until people my age get involved. And it starts small, literally with cleaning your own block, or your own front."