Pimlico's a pearl, but its setting needs polishing

May 03, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Owing to a slight case of empty pockets, James is standing at Park Heights and Hayward avenues noontime Sunday, maybe a furlong from Pimlico Racetrack, with great big visions of economic grandeur or temporary solvency, of which he'll settle for either.

He wishes to spend the afternoon placing bets on race horses, an act widely considered a long shot because of his complete absence of funds. But he has a plan, based on the subtleties of mathematics and sophistication, which is illustrated thusly:

"Hey," he cries the moment he sees an approaching stranger, who happens to be me. "You got a dollar you can spare?"

"What," I ask, with my natural flair for eloquence at such moments, "for?"

"I want to go to the track," James says, "and I got no money."

"No money?" I reply. "Then how can you bet on any races once you get inside?"

This, of course, is exactly where James' plan comes in. He's got a small stack of coupons in his hand, each allowing spectators into the track for $3 off the regular price. The coupons seem to have been clipped out of a magazine or a flier of some sort.

James is selling them for a dollar each. For those buying, it's still a $2 savings, and if James sells enough of these things, it gets him some action strictly on other people's money.

But I don't need a coupon. I'm not going to the racetrack; I'm just slipping through the surrounding neighborhood and wondering about the arrival of the whole wide world in a couple of weeks. The Preakness is coming, and so is the attention of all bettors with loose money.

At City Hall last week, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke sounded upbeat as he talked about this year's Preakness festivities: the parade, the prestige, the race, the freshly minted money arriving in town. Then somebody mentioned the surrounding communities.

The mayor's face went all serious. Yes, he acknowledged, there certainly are problems. He sees the police reports and knows about the drug traffic and the weapons, the boarded-up houses and the trash in back alleys and front yards.

But he said there were signs of hope. An old Park Heights eyesore, a Holiday Inn abandoned long ago, has been torn down and replaced by an empty lot. This is considered an improvement. An elementary school, its structure rotting, has been spruced up. There's healthy talk between different ethnic groups sharing the area. And the city's found money to keep the library open at Garrison Boulevard.

"The big challenge," the mayor said, sitting at the head of a long table, voice calm but legs bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet, "is that Belvedere Avenue area."

Long ago the very gateway to the northwest suburban dream, the Belvedere and Park Heights intersection is now marked by liquor outlets, and by secondhand stores and second-rate lending institutions, and is dominated by a large billboard looming over it all that advertises a bail bond operation.

For a lot of people coming to Pimlico in two weeks, this is the picture of Baltimore they'll take home.

"I know," the mayor said. "Bad housing. Young people looking for work."

And, not to be overlooked, there are the ones like James, who come to the neighborhood with visions of leaving with somebody else's money.

Sunday afternoon, with the first of the racetrack's customers beginning to file in, James is standing there at Hayward and Park Heights with his bargain coupons and his allegedly empty pockets. He's dressed all in black, like Zorro, and gazing imperturbably through sunglasses.

In this neighborhood, his hustle seems pretty benign. He's not stealing, and not flashing a gun. It's his little version of capitalist enterprise, a day at the races sponsored by his own ingenuity.

It's just that this neighborhood used to have some polish. This racetrack used to invite the world in for the Preakness, and the community seemed a showpiece. This community was the gateway to the good life, but it happened long ago and then the good life went away.

So it's nice to hear the mayor listing signs of hope, and nice to see James hustling within the parameters of the law. But it's not exactly what the track had in mind. And not exactly what the city of Baltimore wants to show the world, when everybody shows up two weeks from now.

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