Diverse cultures, heritages abound

Transformation: Census figures that define the region's growing diversity are reflected in varied languages spoken at schools and on the streets, and in ethnically oriented groups and services.

November 14, 1999|By Lisa Friedman | Lisa Friedman,Special to the Sun

You get a taste of it in Fells Point, where Mexican eateries, Syrian-run convenience stores and Greek-owned machine repair shops dot the streets. There's a hint of it inside Goldman's Kosher Bakery on Reisterstown Road. A glimmer among the Vietnamese groceries in Southwest Baltimore.

Head outside the city limits. You can sense it in Randallstown and traditionally white Dundalk and Essex, where an increasing number of middle-class African-Americans are buying homes. In the Korean groceries popping up in Ellicott City. In housing community after housing community in Howard and Carroll counties.

The face of Baltimore is transforming. Each year, census figures that define the region's growing diversity are reflected in new languages spoken at schools and on the streets, and in ethnically oriented neighborhood associations, shops and restaurants.

It's been years since Baltimore fit the image of a blue-collar, industrial city, where most of the residents were working-class whites. Today, 60 percent of the city's population is nonwhite, and demographers predict that by 2010, more than 70 percent will be.

So while the popular perception of Baltimore is no longer accurate, a new image has yet to emerge that fits the vibrant, multicultural mosaic that Charm City and its environs have become.

"It's a pretty complicated place," says Matthew Crenson, a professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University and author of a book on Baltimore neighborhoods. "The question is: What does the new image of Baltimore look like?"

Businessmen such as Pedro Ponceano are part of that answer.

Nearly 20 years ago, the Dominican native followed a well-worn path of immigrants to New York City. Like thousands of others from the Dominican Republic, he settled in Manhattan's Washington Heights.

The former market researcher quickly found work as a Spanish translator in an attorney's office. But Ponceano says he also found exorbitant rents and a school system that he didn't trust for his four children.

"I didn't like New York to raise my children in," he recalls. "You'd see children hanging around in the street, no respect."

Several years ago, when a friend suggested moving the family to Baltimore, Ponceano considered it. After looking at neighborhoods in Washington and Northern Virginia, he decided to settle in Fells Point.

"I saw we could have a more comfortable life," says Ponceano, who opened a general services business on Eastern Avenue. At the time, the area had only two other Latino-owned businesses -- both groceries. By 1997, Ponceano had so much business providing translation services and filing income taxes for Baltimore's growing Latino community that he was able to buy his building. Three similar businesses have now joined his in the community.

Today, Baltimore has more than 8,400 Latino residents -- a diverse community in itself, comprising Central and South American and Caribbean families. They are not the largest immigrant group in Baltimore. In recent decades, Russian Jews have moved to the city by the thousands, making Russian the predominant language of foreign-born residents.

Yet even while less than 4 percent of the city's population is Latino, many demographers estimate that by 2020 one of every four residents will be Hispanic.

Wilfredo Nieves, academic vice president of Baltimore City Community College, says he doesn't need a demographic study to tell him the Latino community is swelling.

"There's a physical presence of the Latino community which I didn't see when I first got here," Nieves says. "When you look around the city now, you really get a flavor. You see more stores, radio stations -- you start hearing in the stores people talking in Spanish."

The Latino community is moving outward from the city as well. Over the past seven years, the number of Hispanics in Anne Arundel and Harford counties has risen by 0.7 percent, and in Howard County by 0.8 percent.

That has prompted a number of specialized programs, especially in Howard County, to help Spanish-speaking parents of young children navigate the bureaucracy of local school systems.

There is so much movement in Baltimore's surrounding counties -- Latino and otherwise -- that demographers say the changes of racial composition in Baltimore's horseshoe-shaped inner suburbs and outlying counties will prove increasingly fascinating.

Providing proof

"The real story is what the 2000 census will say about [Baltimore] county," says Dunbar Brooks, manager of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council's demographic information services.

Most likely, it will prove what Elise Jackson says she has known for some time -- that more African-American professionals like herself are moving to what for years were known as predominantly white communities.

Jackson, who lives in Essex with her husband and two toddlers, says she wanted to move out of Baltimore before her children started school.

"I thought this was a better neighborhood, a safer neighborhood for them," she says.

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