Pimlico area face lift needed

May 12, 1999|By Barry Rascovar

THIS could be a record-shattering Preakness. Saturday's festivities -- the largest such event in Maryland annually -- is expected to draw some 100,000 spectators, massive wagering from around the country on the star-studded racing card and a 14-horse Preakness field, with plenty of top-caliber thoroughbreds but no clear favorite.

Only the weather could spoil this day -- or another electrical outage like last year's (though the track and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. have put in place enough backup systems to keep the tote machines -- and every other conceivable piece of equipment -- juiced up).

But the day could be marred for fans driving to historic Old Hilltop. Those who cruise through the decrepit Pimlico-area neighborhoods to the south and west of the track will be struck by the effects of rampant urban decay.

If one leaves the racetrack, driving south on Park Heights Avenue, there's not much to uplift your spirits. What was once a vibrant commercial strip bordering the track's parking lot and a solid residential community is a shambles. Any building or renovation efforts completed in recent years have been overwhelmed by nearby blight.

Little, if any, beautification efforts have been made in the area in celebration of Preakness Week, though this world-class event and accompanying weeklong festivities bring an estimated $50 million into the city.

Baltimore officials have failed to keep nearby streets clear of trash, to work with residents and businesses to organize communitywide cleanups or to even give the grounds and exterior of Pimlico Middle School a long-overdue face lift.

You would think City Hall would recognize the value of the Preakness and the racetrack to the city. Racing provides jobs and economic benefits. It is also an anchor that could be used to help bring back the faded Pimlico area.

Yet the city has done little to help the racetrack with its financial struggles. It seems to have done even less in a concerted fashion to resurrect the neighborhood.

It is a high-crime area. There are obvious drug and alcohol problems. Housing is crumbling. Block after block is pockmarked by boarded-up homes. Only local churches seem to be thriving by turning long-vacant commercial buildings into places of worship.

If Baltimore is going to make a comeback under the next mayor, this is a good place to begin.

Failing to uplift the Pimlico area could not only pose a threat to the race track's future, but also to the future of nearby Sinai Hospital, a major medical complex located to the east, and the popular Mount Washington middle-income neighborhood to the north.

The continuing unchecked spread of blight and decay in Pimlico could eventually undercut the growing Orthodox Jewish community, which has laid down roots north of Northern Parkway, along Park Heights Avenue.

Reviving formerly solid moderate-income communities like Pimlico should have been a major city objective. Instead, it has been a failing of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's administration.

While the mayor has focused on razing public housing high-rises in and around downtown, middle- and moderate-income housing in the city's neighborhoods has been allowed to decline markedly. No wonder so many former city residents took the first opportunity to find better housing in the county.

Reversing that trend won't be easy. But the alternative is further decline in these neighborhoods that could persuade major institutions to move out, too.

This is a week to cheer Baltimore's virtues, especially its proud history as home to one of the world's greatest horse-racing events. Too bad the city hasn't done its part to support the racing industry -- or nearby neighborhoods in desperate need of a concentrated rescue effort.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

Pub Date: 5/12/99

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