A divine little community

Paradise: A neighborhood strives to maintain its old-style charm in the face of modern threats.

April 19, 2000|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

Amid the strip malls and megastores dotting Baltimore County, there's an oasis of small-town life, a place where business is still a mom-and-pop concern.

It's a community known as Paradise.

Just five blocks from the city line on Frederick Road, you can buy a used car at Paradise Motors, have a beer down the block at the Paradise Tavern, do your laundry across the street at Paradise Suds and buy crabs around the corner at Paradise Seafood.

Residents like it this way -- convenient, dependable and just a little worn around the edges.

Nobody's sure how Paradise got its heavenly name, said Catonsville historian Jean Walsh. It might have come from the Paradise Hotel, which stood along Frederick Road during the 19th century, but is now long gone.

What is clear is that the people of Paradise like the small-town atmosphere, and don't take kindly to out-of-town corporations with bulldozers. Two years ago they successfully fought a proposal by Rite Aid to expand its store and obliterate half of Paradise's business district.

The two-block area of Frederick Road between Paradise and Prospect avenues was made part of the Catonsville commercial revitalization district last month, sparking renewed interest in the neighborhood.

The designation gives a boost to Paradise business owners, making them eligible for free architectural help to design new signs, and making available low-interest loans and tax credits for sprucing up their facades.

The Paradise Community Association also is rebuilding planters outside the shops with a $4,800 county grant, and has formed a garden club to maintain them.

The business community can use the help. Some businesses have survived for decades, but others have turned over with greater frequency than residents would like.

"We have to figure out a way to stabilize the turnover of businesses," said Judy Hess Boitz, who moved to Paradise nine years ago from Columbia. "Some are hanging on by the tips of their fingers."

As president of the Paradise Community Association, Boitz is working to persuade the 1,000-home community to provide greater support to local businesses, which she said are indispensable to elderly residents who can't drive.

Ferguson's Hardware will repair screens that cover the windows of the community's old homes. The Store -- the local grocery store -- delivers groceries to 150 homes each week.

Major investment

In what is perhaps a sign of better days to come, one business owner has announced plans for the largest commercial investment in the area in years. The neighborhood veterinarian soon will break ground on a $1.6 million animal hospital, complete with a therapeutic swimming pool for injured dogs.

Dr. Cheryl Burke will move Paradise Animal Hospital from a converted house across Frederick Road to a 1.6-acre lot behind the local 7-Eleven, with the help of $510,000 in county loans.

"I don't have any huge fears Paradise is going anywhere, but there comes a time when you have to step up to the plate and make a contribution," said Burke, who grew up in Catonsville and dreamed of returning after veterinary school. Her animal hospital has 7,000 pet owners on its client list.

`New kid on the block'

Burke calls herself "the new kid on the block." She's been doing business in Paradise for 10 years.

That's not very long, compared with James Mohler, whose family has owned commercial property in the 6400 block of Frederick Road since 1922.

Or compared with the Frank Evans family, which has owned The Store since the early 1980s. It's the only grocery store in greater Catonsville with photos of filmmaker John Waters on the walls. Waters filmed a scene from his movie "Pecker" there a few years ago.

Across the street is Manelli's Restaurant, where Rita and Bernard Manelli have been serving breakfast and lunch for 28 years.

They make much of their food from scratch, including soups, meatballs and spaghetti sauce.

Secret to success

Bernard Manelli said the secret to his restaurant's survival is "endurance."

"We went through quite bad times like everybody else, especially during the Nixon years," he said.

But with steady customers from the neighborhood and other faithful clients, "we were able to survive. We haven't spent a dime on advertising in 28 years," he said.

Businesses such as these need to be sustained, said Boitz, because they help define Paradise and make it a special place.

"People who grew up here want to come back," she said. "Even though we're a quarter-mile from the city line, we still have that small-town feel."

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