Neighbors learn to share cultures Upper Fells Point a harbor for people from many places

October 12, 1998|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

They call this stretch of Broadway the "United Nations."

This is the block where a Spanish band sings rap, where the old Irish priest at St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church says Masses in fluent Spanish, where the Baptist church is attended mainly by Native Americans. For some time, one Hispanic restaurant served Chinese food.

People from more than a dozen different countries have made their home on Broadway between Pratt and Gough streets. For years, their different cultures, foods and languages have kept them apart. But recently, these Baltimoreans have started to trust each other, and now, their long neglected and run-down block is poised for rebirth.

Yesterday, at a festival to celebrate and build on their newfound unity, about 2,500 people gathered, watching Polish dancers, sampling Indian food and talking with their neighbors. "People always stayed within their own group. Everyone did their own little thing. But we have a lot in common. We are all willing to work hard. We don't want hand-outs," said Jose Ruiz, organizer of the Festival of Nations and a longtime community worker.

"Everyone goes to Fells Point. But there's no reason we can't make this as beautiful, or even more beautiful,than Fells Point."

Called Upper Fells Point by some, this area north of Fleet Street boasts residents from China, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Greece, India, Mexico, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Poland, and Ukraine.

Broadway itself has a storied past. It used to be one of the premier boulevards in the city, a place lined with trees and crowded with nattily dressed women and men. Children went to see Elvis Presley and kung fu movies for 35 cents at one of the four movie theaters. There were fancy dress shops, the family drugstore, a camera shop. Some remember a place that had the best foot-long subs in the city.

"You never went anywhere else. You just went to Broadway," said Pauline Strozykowski, 74, who has lived a block away in the same rowhouse for the past 54 years. "I would so like everything back the way it used to be."

But the 1968 riots decimated much of the street. Longtime residents remember businesses, one by one, closing and leaving. For the past 20 years, they say, it's been a depressing place. Even when Fells Point underwent a renewal, residents and business owners say Broadway north of Fleet Street was largely ignored.

And the various ethnic and racial groups were doing little more than coexisting.

"We knew we had to get along with each other," said Dorothy Scott, an African-American who has lived nearby for 39 years.

Added Clara Butler, another longtime resident: "We respected each other."

But, everyone agrees, they didn't work together.

When Ruiz first organized the festival a few years ago, he said he met opposition. People were suspicious of the fledgling efforts of a few non-profits, including the East Harbor Village Center, involved in job training, and Southeast Development Inc., an organization that helps business help low- and moderate-income residents of Southeast Baltimore.

"I didn't always trust everything I heard at the meeting. There was the surface, and then there was the reality," said Darryl Dunaway, a community representative. He and others were leery that this was another government program that wasn't going to work.

But in the last few years, things have changed.

Along with added patrols, the Baltimore City Police Department established a satellite office in the block north of Pratt Street. J.R. Alencar, 49, the Baltimore police officer who has walked the beat for the past three years, said undercover officers have helped cut down on prostitution.

Meanwhile, private sources have pumped more than $100,000 into the area. Signs have been painted. Building facades have been cleaned and improved. The vacant lot on Pratt Street near Broadway was cleaned. With an influx of Hispanic residents, more restaurants and grocery stores have opened to meet the need.

A logo has been designed for the Burgundy "Broadway Corridor" flags that will hang on Broadway from Johns Hopkins Hospital south to the harbor. Next weekend, 37 trees will be planted along the street, and several in the "United Nations" block will be ringed with clay tiles painted by Hispanic children.

Personality and attitudes have changed, too.

This year, when Ruiz came calling to organize the second Festival of Nations, more than twice as many businesses wanted to participate. Owners said they are starting to see they face common problems and can help each other. People describe the new atmosphere as infectious.

Everyone involved realizes they have a long way to go. But eventually, community leaders say, they'd like their neighborhood to be like Little Italy, a place where people come to find ethnic foods and culture they can't get anywhere else.

Jose Flores, 43, president of the Hispanic Business Association, which sponsored yesterday's event, looks forward to that.

"This is going to be a place," he declared, "where people can come and feel welcome."

Pub Date: 10/12/98

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