Bill Cosby was the big draw at yesterday's Park Heights block party, despite the controversy the actor-pitchman has stirred up since switching from soft-selling Jell-O to hard-selling a message of black self-responsibility.
He's been scolding African-Americans, particularly the men, for years: Take care of your kids - heck, marry the mother of your kids - don't drop out of school, stop committing crimes, get a job, fix your own community instead of blaming outside forces.
But if Cosby thinks this message is news to anyone at the Park Heights Barber Shop, a short walk up the street to this neighborhood institution would set him straight. The shop has been taking care of business - its own, and that of its community - for decades. For more than 34 years, the shop has offered more than haircuts.
On a street that has its share of the usual urban woes - drug dealers on corners, abandoned houses seemingly crumbling before your eyes - the shop is an oasis. Warm and welcoming, it is the ultimate "third place," sociologist Ray Oldenburg's term for neighborhood hangouts that are neither home nor work, but vital to a community's public life.
"This is the black man's country club," Derrick Clinton says with a chortle.
Clinton doesn't tell me that himself; rather, he shows me a TV clip of him saying it on CBS Evening News with Katie Couric this past March about "Hair, Heart and Health," a program in which barbers are trained to take their clients' blood pressure measurements as a way of combating the cardiovascular disease that particularly besets black men.
That the Park Heights Barber Shop would provide such a service is not so surprising, given the role it has played in the neighborhood over the years. Started by Clinton's father, Johnny, who despite some recent health problems still comes in regularly, the shop is active in neighborhood affairs as well as city and state politics. The walls are decorated with pictures of the likes of former Mayor Kurt Schmoke, former Gov. Robert Ehrlich and the late lawyer Johnnie Cochran.
But there are also several pictures of the Million Man March, the 1995 gathering on the Mall in Washington where black men pledged to take responsibility for themselves and their families, and to reject drugs, violence and joblessness - years before Cosby would generate headlines for saying much the same thing.
"He tells the truth," barber Maurice Braxton says of Cosby. "Usually people put all the weight on the city, but it's the people - the people have to want to improve."
Derrick Clinton doesn't look quite so kindly on Cosby, mainly because of the belittling tone that he thinks the actor has adopted in previous public statements about black people. While he too believes in personal responsibility - he'll proudly note how his oldest son has graduated from college and his three younger kids are all A students - he says that the opportunities for success also have to be in place.
The barbers and their customers can look out the doorway of the shop and see what happens if there aren't jobs or educational opportunities for the young men of the neighborhood - drugs, crime, blight.
Clinton is glad that Cosby has come to the neighborhood, but he's particularly happy about the reason for his appearance - a celebration of Operation PROTECT, an initiative launched by the city that has brought extra police and social services to the community.
"It's about having the community and the government work together," said Sheryl Goldstein, director of the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice.
Among the community groups that had information booths at yesterday's block party was Park Heights Renaissance, a nonprofit group that is working to redevelop the community. For Saunie Tubman, who coordinates the group's loan incentive program for homeowners, it's not so much a question of who is to blame for the neighborhood's deterioration as how to turn it around.
"The deterioration is not just the buildings, it's the people, it's the families, it's the community," Tubman said.
It's a complicated issue - when you look at a neighborhood like Park Heights that has fallen on hard times and you hear the old-timers talk about its past glories, there isn't just one reason but many for the decline. Did the residents let the neighborhood go downhill, or did governmental neglect hasten it along? Which is why when someone like Cosby hammers on the issue of personal responsibility, it seems like that's only part of the equation.
In any event, after his one-day stop, he'll leave, but the residents will remain. Tubman, who works in but doesn't live in Park Heights, will be among those helping Deputy Mayor Salima S. Marriott knock on doors in the neighborhood today to inform them of resources available and to find out what they need.
"What is keeping them from getting jobs, or continuing their education?" Tubman said the volunteers will ask. "What does your family need?"