A good track record for Mount Washington

Pimlico seen as key to stable neighborhood

May 15, 1999|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

When hordes of uninvited guests park in their streets, driveways and yards today for the Preakness, the Mount Washington neighborhood will be braced for the invasion. In fact, the local lemonade stands show that in a weird way, residents almost welcome it.

"Plenty of people in Mount Washington say they hate it, but it's amusing at the end to watch," said Peter Garver, a past president of the Mount Washington Improvement Association. "From the porch, it's quite the scene."

There's also a serious reason for putting up with the party. Some call the historic racetrack, a "buffer" separating gritty city life from rambling Mount Washington, with its Victorian summer homes and wide-front porches.

"It prevents a lot of walk-in crime," said Lawrence M. Kloze, a longtime community activist who has lived across the street from the racetrack since the early 1970s.

While questions about the track's future have surfaced in recent years, a coterie of community leaders and activists affirmed the stakes are high when it comes to preserving the racetrack -- and, therefore, the neighborhood full of cheerfully cluttered houses.

And they say they mean to keep the race, too, right where it is.

Declaring that the Preakness is a "great thing for the city," Garver pointed out the racetrack's value close to home: "Pimlico is physically between us and the lower Park Heights neighborhood. It's 120 acres, a big piece of land, and nobody wants to see it vacant."

Comparing the deteriorating racetrack to the empty Memorial Stadium, Engelman said, "Just like people in Waverly, people were worried and wondering what would happen to the neighborhood" if the track closed down.

Task force formed

The recent political storm over bringing slot machines to the track, coupled with the racing season at Pimlico dwindling to three months, inspired Mount Washington, Park Heights and about a dozen nearby institutions and neighborhoods to form the Pimlico Racetrack Neighborhoods Task Force.

Wednesday, the task force will attend a town meeting to hear racetrack owner Joseph A. De Francis present a comprehensive capital improvement plan for the track. The meeting will be at 6 p.m. at Arlington Elementary School, said Diane Frederick, executive director of the neighborhood nonprofit Northwest Baltimore Corp.

De Francis is required to improve the track as part of the $10 million state grant added to racing purses in the last legislative session.

Frederick cautioned that the meeting marks the start of a process that could take several years. "People are interested in seeing it [Pimlico racetrack] stay as a fixture and a viable entity," she said. "It's a lot of traffic and stress on a residential area, but by and large, we're enthusiastic."

Referring to the race's history, which dates to before the Civil War, she said, "There's been Preakness longer than any of us."

On the other side of the racetrack, Jean Yarborough, a Park Heights community leader. said, "The whole community needs to know what the track has in mind, and we have to learn how to live together. We see De Francis doing something totally different in becoming a partner."

Long ties to Preakness

The ties between the Preakness and the neighborhoods go back to the days when horses arrived by train at Mount Washington station and pranced up South Avenue to Pimlico. But the race has had perhaps the greatest impact on Mount Washington, the community to the northeast, at the confluence of the Jones Falls and Western Run.

These days, Mount Washington is thriving, even "high cotton" in places, said Deborah Bedwell, head of Baltimore Clayworks, a ceramics center in the heart of the village.

With plenty to divert people -- from a tavern with a shuffleboard table, an ice skating rink, a swim club, Fresh Fields groceries and Starbucks coffee -- Mount Washington looks like the picture of urban health.

"Mount Washington is not as proper as Roland Park or Guilford," said Esta Maril, a 50-year resident whose late husband, artist Herman Maril, found inspiration in the horses and jockeys who raced at Pimlico. "It's a nice hodgepodge."

Working together

The elementary school with a "multicultural school body," backs that up, said Principal Jacqueline Waters-Scofield. "It's a close-knit, inclusive community that really works together."

Parents are heavily involved in the school, and the improvement association meetings are often lively. "In Mount Washington, you'll see all ages, and they get along better than other neighborhoods," said Maj. Robert F. Biemiller, the Northern District police commander.

To keep Mount Washington groomed with or without the racetrack, "we have to be vigilant," Garver said. "We can't let our guard down."

Pub Date: 5/15/99

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