IF THEY HAD this much action inside Pimlico Race Course, the place would be a gold mine. Instead, while Magna Entertainment Corp. announces multimillion-dollar plans for Old Hilltop that sound like castles in the air, out here in the shadows of the track, they talk of raising maybe $12 for a slight touch of narcotics.
Here on lower Park Heights Avenue's cluttered, crumbly, eyesore commercial district, scores of people linger in wilting afternoon heat. Movement becomes a series of swift blurs: the slap of the hands, the sneaky exchange of cash for something else. Cars pull to the curb, words are shouted, and the cars pull away. The block is a mess of shut-down stores, bail bond operations and bars, the quick-fix check-cashing business, and a sense of utter disconnect with the grand talk of rebirth for the racetrack around the corner.
So there: The prospective owners of the fabled Pimlico say they want to tear down the track and rebuild from scratch. They talk about an entertainment colossus to include live musical shows, high-end shopping and gourmet dining and, as an added bonus, construction of an auto parts factory that might bring jobs to people who have long since given up.
We should all live so long.
For now we have the sidewalk along Park Heights Avenue. Here the talk of Pimlico does not mean expenditures of vast millions on an alleged sport of kings. It means that once a year, Preakness Day, there's a few bucks for neighborhood kids who can swipe some of those metal shopping carts and use them to hustle all those college types carrying their beer containers and picnic baskets to the track.
The rest of the time, the talk around here is about the neighborhood's sorry, abandoned housing. It's about the need for more police. It's about the hunger for treatment centers. (Nobody has to ask which kind of treatment.) It's about the drug traffic that has turned what was once one of the city's grandest boulevards into one of its tawdriest extended slums while one generation of political leaders after another looked on cluelessly.
"What percentage of people out here do you think have some kind of drug history?"
The question was posed to three women who stood outside a check-cashing operation doing steady business. The sidewalk was crowded. The first woman, Dana Jessup, 31, looked around. She used to make salads at one of the big food stores, but now is a cashier at a chain restaurant.
"Gotta be," she said, "98.9 percent."
The two who were with her, Patricia Clark, 35, and Tasha White, 32, glanced around. The number was inflated, of course, but the point was well-taken.
"Lots of homeless, lots of crime, and not no treatment centers," said Clark.
"So they just keep locking people up," said Jessup. "I'm telling you, 98.9 percent."
"When did you start doing drugs?" she was asked.
"Eleven," she said.
"Eleven years old?"
"Sniffing heroin, which my boyfriend gave me. He was 15. Been doing it since then. But you can get clean if you want. I was clean last year."
"How long have you been working?"
"So you've been clean six months?"
"No, I'm not clean now. I'm hoping to get into a program next week. I got four kids I'm trying to raise. I'm good at what I do, but my addiction gets in the way, see?"
All of this is said in matter-of-fact tones. We are long past the age of shame, or embarrassment, or cover-up. This is a world in which drug abusers look around and realize they are among vast numbers, so what's to hide? But their lives tend to come undone, and the mess touches everyone.
So we hear the news about Pimlico, and it doesn't quite register. Somebody really wants to dump millions into this environment? They want to tear down the whole place and rebuild from scratch, and make it some kind of "entertainment colossus?"
The news doesn't register because the prospective owners, Magna Corp., have troubles of their own: second-quarter earnings that were down by 50 percent; company stock hitting a 52-week low; reports of layoffs and postponed capital spending at their Gulfstream Park track in Florida, where there had been many grand pronouncements similar to Pimlico's.
But the talk doesn't register, also, because of the history surrounding Pimlico. Not the track's history, but the neighborhood's. The years go by, and the decay worsens. The houses are abandoned, and boards cover windows and doors. The trash piles in the yards. The drug traffic is ceaseless.
And now they talk of millions to be poured into a racetrack, and it feels as if they're talking about some other planet, instead of a place in the heart of the darkness.