Neglected patch of city seeks renewal

Small, large steps proposed to spur Park Heights change

May 28, 2001|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Gracie Marks, 74, tends the community garden behind the 2800 block of Waldorf Ave., proudly pointing out the okra, bell peppers and slick kale peeking from the rich soil.

"I say in the next three to four weeks, we'll be getting string beans and onions, and in the next couple of days, we'll be getting greens," she says, poking the damp ground with her weeding stick. "We'll be eating then, honey. I'll be cooking them boys."

Marks and her husband, George, were the second black family on this block in Park Heights. That was 35 years ago. But the neighborhood has deteriorated since then. Homes sit empty, or have been torn down. The Markses and hundreds of other families have held on.

Now, after a decade of severe decline in the community, Park Heights leaders are trying to bring new life and hope to this piece of Northwest Baltimore bound- ed generally by West Northern Parkway, Wabash and Greenspring avenues and Druid Park Drive. Led by Del. Salima S. Marriott, and supported by City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, they propose making Park Heights a community benefits district, with a $55 to $72 surcharge levied annually on area property owners and merchants.

Successful benefits districts exist in Charles Village and Midtown (encompassing Bolton Hill, Charles North, Madison Park and Mount Vernon-Belvedere) - small- er neighborhoods with better housing stock and less severe problems. The downtown business area also is a special tax district.

But many of the people at a Town Hall meeting last week fumed over the idea of paying more fees, especially when a budget crisis has city officials talking about raising taxes. Success will depend on whether supporters can persuade people such as the Markses, longtime homeowners with a stake in the community, to buy into their effort.

The challenges are many. Dozens of community groups, many no more than a telephone number and an address, have to be brought to the table. This is not a wealthy area. The annual median income in 1990 was slightly more than $21,000.

Some residents are wary of getting involved. They remember the government-funded development corporations that collapsed in the early 1990s amid allegations of financial misconduct. Leaders and activists are not looking to those sorts of agencies to lead the way. They are looking to the owners of the community's approximately 15,000 properties.

In the past decade, Park Heights lost about 8,000 residents, dropping from 37,000 to a little more than 29,000, according to the latest census figures. It was a decline repeated across Baltimore, as once-strong neighborhoods became marginal and, in some cases, deadly. The exodus created a domino effect as population loss translated to fewer resources. City officials are considering closing a public library and two elementary schools in Park Heights.

The deterioration has not stopped George Marks from keeping up his neighborhood. Of course, he mows his patch of lawn - that's a given. He also mows the lawns of the vacant houses on his block and polices the alley. His wife sweeps the gutters on both sides of Waldorf Avenue.

His is a common complaint: "If each and every house would just come out and clean in their front, but these people here ... they just don't want to clean up," said Marks, 72, a retired Bethlehem Steel worker.

Apathy is one problem besetting Park Heights. Department of Public Works officials note that the area has requested six community cleanups this year. By comparison, Patterson Park Rental Association has scheduled 26.

Crime is another problem. The Rev. Junior Lee Gamble, a beloved Baptist preacher, was gunned down there in July 1999, a killing that outraged the community. Earlier this year, a federal jury convicted Levi "Vi" Johnson and Stover "Big Ox" Stockton of conspiring to distribute more than 1 kilogram of heroin. Their gang, known as the Woodland boys, ran a $5,000-a-day operation and waged a ruthless battle for the drug trade around Woodland and Park Heights avenues, a short walk from where Gracie Marks looks after her collard greens.

Harold Alston said that when he moved into the 3400 block of St. Ambrose Ave. three years ago, drug dealers were "all up and down the street, guys blocking off the alley with railroad ties."

He and his mother, Marion Jones, started sweeping up the trash. Every day, they called 911. Soon, the young men nicknamed Jones "Five-O," slang for the police. Within a couple of years, the block was safe. Alston believes God told him to fight for his neighborhood.

"What he said is, `Take back Park Heights and take it back a block at a time, starting with your block,'" said Alston, who formed the St. Ambrose Community Development Association after a shooting outside his house. "Children are now allowed to come outside and ride bikes in their own community."

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