Picturing the people on Park Heights Exhibit: Photographs and text bring to life the diverse people that line the thoroughfare, which connects Baltimore to rural farmland.

November 03, 1998|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

It would take you about 15 minutes to drive the 10 miles of Park Heights Avenue from its start near Druid Hill Park all the way north into the rolling pastures of Baltimore County near Caves Road.

But you'd need a long autumn's afternoon to savor a photo exhibit of the byway now on display at the Jewish Community Center. The project is a peek into the lives of the people behind the buildings -- be they Orthodox synagogues, Islamic carryouts or old farmhouses -- along lower and upper Park Heights.

Amy Bernstein, a 41-year-old free-lance journalist, did the interviews, and her Mount Washington neighbor, Kristine Buls, 36, took the pictures for "Park Heights: Lives Along the Avenue."

With their idea in hand -- the desire to create a portrait of the universes that make up Park Heights Avenue -- the pair went door to door looking for faces and stories.

Almost no one turned them down, and the result is a pageant of 43 black-and-white photographs with accompanying text. The work took about 1 1/2 years from conception to completion and is open through Nov. 29 at the center, 5700 Park Heights Ave.

By design, scarcely any pictures of buildings are in the exhibit.

Said Buls: "The message of this project is what's inside the buildings."

"On lower Park Heights it would have been too easy to just show poverty and despair and drugs. I wanted to find a way to explore the diversity hiding behind the buildings," said Bernstein, who has written a history of Baltimore. She got the idea for the current project by driving her daughter up and down Park Heights Avenue to preschool. "And I knew I wanted the people to tell their own stories," she said.

The people are African-Americans, Muslims, Jamaicans, West Indians, Jews from across the spectrum of religious observance, Roman Catholic priests and nuns, women who work with horses, women who help at the birth of babies, widows, dentists, cooks and druggists.

It begins with a shot of Sister Chamaine Krohe, the director of St. Ambrose Outreach Center in the 3400 block of Park Heights. Krohe is seen talking to a smiling youngster.

"It's a mixed group of folks who love their community as much as any other neighbors would in any other community," Krohe says in the text alongside her picture. "We are more than soup kitchens, and we are more than vacant houses. We have people who can dance beautiful dances and sing beautiful songs and do community service. All of those things are here. It's just that nobody's showcasing them."

[An adult literacy class at St. Ambrose was so inspired by the project that members are going to document their lives in an exhibit of photographs and stories.]

People of color, like Islamic carryout owner Ali Ansar, and Densley Anderson, a Jamaican chef known for his curried shrimp and jerk chicken, and city fire Lt. Littleton Wyatt dominate the photos up until the 5700 block of Park Heights Ave., where Pimlico Race Course and Northern Parkway make up an unofficial dividing line between what used to be Jewish and what continues to be Jewish.

In a separate project, Jewish Community Center gallery director Claudine Davison gives tours of former synagogues turned to churches in lower Park Heights. The next tour is scheduled for spring, when the Park Heights exhibit will move to the gallery at City Hall.

Many of the African-Americans in the exhibit's photos from lower Park Heights lament the decline of an area they remember as vibrant. Ralph Small, who recently closed a pharmacy he ran since 1975, said: "Over the years the neighborhood has really changed dramatically from a neighborhood that you could be proud of to a neighborhood that you have a lot of questions about. You don't see people bettering themselves. I have people that sell drugs right out front. There was a time when I would run people away. Now you're scared to."

In the photos taken north of Northern Parkway, visitors begin to see images of Russian immigrants, rabbis, last year's graduating class of Northwestern High School, people living in old folks' homes, the grounds of the Suburban Country Club and the duck pond at Druid Ridge Cemetery.

The exhibit ends with a weathered farmhouse in the 11000 block of Park Heights Ave.

"Just 10 miles north of the southern tip of Park Heights Avenue the road is flanked by wide open farmland, overgrown fields and large private homes set well back from the avenue," says the text. "It is a 15-minute car ride from Park Circle to here."

The one complaint heard at the exhibit is from people coming to relive the magic of their Park Heights childhoods, people for whom it has been 40 or 50 years from what used to be Park Heights Avenue.

Instead of amber memories, the daydreamers get a dose of black-and-white reality.

"It may not be what everybody wants, but there's a lot that's positive," said Bernstein.

Pub Date: 11/03/98

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