On tour, Dixon sees hope amid decline

City Council president visits Park Heights

July 22, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

As a Northwestern High School student in the 1970s, Sheila Dixon rode a city bus every day through Park Heights and admired the neighborhood's well-kept homes and tidy shops.

As City Council president, Dixon rolled through the area Friday and got a bleaker view: shuttered stores, boarded-up housing sprayed with graffiti and 19 liquor stores in the space of a few blocks.

"Certain parts are viable, thriving, bright and clean, but now there are areas of deterioration," Dixon said after a mini-bus tour of the neighborhood with community leaders. "Instead of glass windows, you see political signs on vacant property."

Dixon also found some cause for optimism on the tour, which was designed to deepen her understanding of the neighborhood and, she said, reach out to the Jewish community.

Community leaders who served as Dixon's guide expressed hope that the planned sale of Pimlico Race Course, which was announced last week, could spur investment in the area. They pointed out signs of redevelopment under way: a Home Depot under construction; a successful 33-unit senior housing development; new townhouses near the racetrack; a planned multimillion-dollar expansion of the Jewish Community Center.

Amid talk of new shopping centers that might spring up around a rejuvenated racetrack, Dixon asked for views on the potential for slot machines at Pimlico.

Diane Frederick, executive director of Northwest Baltimore Corp., said her organization believes slots could speed the area's improvement. "Provided some of the income stream comes back to the community, we would support them," she said.

Dixon said she, too, would support slots if some of the proceeds benefit the community. "I could live with that," she said.

No one else on the bus spoke up, but the view was not unanimous.

Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, sat across the aisle from Dixon but kept mum on the question.

In a separate interview, Abramson said, "We are against it as a religious body [based on] a biblical prohibition on gambling."

"If the community has to rely upon gambling for its safety and success, then it's a very tenuous source of revenue," he said. "That's not the way to do it."

During the tour, Jewish leaders said they welcome the diversity of the growing black and Hispanic population, but also hope to retain Park Heights' identity as the hub of Baltimore's Jewish community. They take heart that white flight has tapered off in recent years.

Park Heights' white population dropped by 10 percent in the past decade, compared with an 18 percent drop between 1980 and 1990, and a 30 percent drop between 1970 and 1980, said Kenneth N. Gelula, executive director of Comprehensive Housing Assistance, an agency supported by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

"Jewish people continue to buy in this neighborhood," he said.

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