Enoch "Smitty" Smith stares out the window of the Paramount I barbershop on Pennsylvania Avenue's 2700 block. Bleakness gazes back. Broken malt liquor bottles pack a tiny park, and trash blankets the alley next to it. Drug addicts huddle. Rowhouses cry out for rehabilitation. RIP graffiti dots walls -- enshrining homicide victims.
Adjacent to the barbershop, where Smith has cut hair for 10 years, a tree has grown out of a vacant city-owned storefront for at least a decade.
Smith pruned it recently, hoping to reduce the leafy haven it provides for drug dealers when it rains.
Smith's piece of Pennsylvania Avenue -- he owns a seafood market/restaurant just south of the barbershop -- mirrors other blocks of the historic thoroughfare, a smattering of hopeful small businesses butting up against aging blight.
The future of "The Avenue," once a cultural entertainment hub and now a symbol of urban decay, is again being debated. Its selection in July for the Main Streets grants program has sparked optimism among some activists and political leaders, but it has done little to encourage many merchants and residents.
Despite recent police efforts to clean up the area and the spurts of attention paid to the Avenue Market and the Shake and Bake skating and bowling center, merchants say businesses will struggle as long as crime and drugs make shopping and dining on Pennsylvania Avenue a frightening prospect.
Plans for the avenue
Optimistic city leaders and community activists are quick to counter that the Pennsylvania Avenue Task Force -- created about 18 months ago by former housing commissioner Daniel P. Henson III and now called the Pennsylvania Avenue Redevelopment Collaborative -- has concrete plans for the street, including rehabilitation of boarded-up rowhouses and a resurgence of businesses.
There's also the Penn-North Revitalization Corporation, a grassroots organization formed in 1963 that received $55,000 this year in Community Development Block Grant funds.
City officials also refer to the Main Streets program. One of seven communities designated to the national program, Pennsylvania Avenue will receive $260,000 over five years.
The program's goals include generating new businesses, sustaining existing ones, renovating facades and improving community images. Merchants such as Smith welcome Main Streets funds to help them spruce up their businesses. But Dominic Wiker, director of the program, acknowledges that $260,000 over five years, especially on a street rife with problems, is not much to work with.
"We look at those dollars as a tool to implement the vision that the neighborhood defines for itself," Wiker said. "With the five-year approach ... this whole thing is about incremental improvements, so we're not waiting for one big project."
Moreover, Wiker says, the entire street won't benefit from Main Streets money -- just the area between the 1500 block at McMechen Street and the 1900 block at Presstman Street.
"The reason for that is, because it isn't a lot of cash, we want to make sure that physical improvements are concentrated so that they're readily identifiable," Wiker said. "We want it to be noticeable."
The avenue is getting money from other sources, too: $30,000 from the federally funded Empowerment Zone economic development program, to help the 2100 to 2700 blocks; and city assistance to help fix up the declining Avenue Market.
But the market continues to struggle -- its lights were turned off for two hours recently for non-payment of bills and were turned back on only after the city paid $26,000 to Baltimore, Gas & Electric. Despite attention paid to the market and other efforts, many merchants and residents worry the city's latest efforts are too little, too late.
"The businesses around here are slowly either going out of business or their business is going down to nothing," Mike Rogers, 52, owner of Poppa K's Mens Shop in the 1700 block, said while sitting on a stool outside his store. "The city let Pennsylvania Avenue go down to the bottom of the barrel, and now they're trying to bring it up. It's coming late, but at least they're doing it."
Rogers said his business is faring all right. But others are not. A Payless shoe store across the street is boarded up.
Perhaps music lures customers into Rogers' shop -- a big speaker over the front door plays tunes from WWIN-FM -- or lottery ticket sales. Another plus for him, he says, is that in six years he has never been robbed, which helps keep prices down and makes him less likely to leave.
Police acknowledge the street -- which is split between the Western and Central police districts -- has its share of crimes associated with the illegal drug trade but say they're working hard to clean it up.
The Avenue Market was in one of 10 open-air drug zones that Mayor Martin O'Malley vowed to clear within his first six months in office.