As war looms, Park Heights may again become afterthought

March 18, 2003|By Michael Olesker

SOON WE CAN forget Park Heights Avenue again. The war will arrive any minute now, and slot machines and Pimlico Race Course and the ruins of Park Heights just outside the track will seem like civic afterthoughts once more.

The war will take away many things, including memory. For a few ticks of the clock, as the thinkers in Annapolis wrestled with the financial blessings of slot machines, they hinted at big money that might spill from Pimlico's proposed new gambling venture into Lower Park Heights, that stretch of battered and abandoned housing, liquor outlets, bail bond operations, check-cashing businesses and, not to be overlooked, lottery outlets running from Northern Parkway down to Park Circle.

The war will take away talk of any urgency about Park Heights. What the hell, it's been decaying for 30 years, so what's another decade or two? The war will take precedence now. It will drown out talk of Park Heights and every other piece of local business that doesn't seem a matter of imminent life and death.

In Washington, President Bush declares his "moment of truth" for the world. In Annapolis, Gov. Robert Ehrlich tries to convince a reluctant legislature that slot machine money can salvage his state budget without deep spending cuts. He does this with the clock winding down and legislators' attention drifting, and no one knowing the full extent that this war will take money away from neighborhoods, from schools, from highways and railways and all other wishful thinking.

On Park Heights yesterday, it was the usual. Under dismal morning rain, the line outside the Yellow Bowl to buy lottery tickets never stopped for a moment.

"We open at 6:45," said the woman named Michelle taking bets behind metal bars.

"You mean people are here at 6:45?" she was asked.

"No," she said, "they're here at a quarter of 6. But we don't open until 6:45. And then it's nonstop."

For $2 apiece, she sells betting guides, little books with advice on which three-digit combinations are "hot numbers." One is called Fast Eddie's Fast Hits. Another is called Grandma's Monthly Specials. On such deception, money is cast desperately to the wind. The state is implicitly tied to this, and yet arguments are still made to kill slots on the basis of morality.

On Park Heights Avenue, morality is sometimes considered a luxury. The police continue to call it one of the city's worst concentrations of drug traffic. Housing officials bemoan its dilapidated and abandoned buildings. For a few days, the backers of slot machines suggested great improvements might come to Park Heights from the overflow of new slot machine money.

Yesterday morning, no one outside the Yellow Bowl put much stock in such talk.

"They've been talking about fixing up Park Heights for years," said Frank Prentis, 61. "Over there, used to be a bicycle shop. Over there, clubs where you could sit and talk and not have people starting fights. Now it's bail bonds and check-cashing places." Prentis, at the edge of the lottery line, says he is unemployed.

"Billions of dollars are spent to bomb some other country," said Kandyce Hooker, 45. "And they claim they can't help this neighborhood, not for 30 or 40 years now. It should be gleaming, it should be a paradise. Instead, it's a place without any pride." Hooker, at the edge of the lottery line, says she is unemployed.

"Slot machines would make a difference," says Antoine Jones, 22, "because it'd bring in more people, which means it'd bring in more police. If people feel protected, they're not afraid to come into a neighborhood. If people feel safe, that's the start of good things." Jones says he is unemployed but studying for his high school equivalency test.

"Me, I'm from Carroll County," says Kelvin Mason, 40.

"What are you doing down here on Park Heights Avenue?" he is asked. He holds up a cup of coffee.

"You came all the way down here for the coffee?"

"That's it," he says. Plus, perhaps, any hacking business he can find. Along this stretch of Park Heights, there are plenty of people looking for rides -- and plenty more who feel this neighborhood has been taken for a ride. For decades now, it decays and fractures and bloodies itself, and people who run governments take such a condition for granted.

Now there will be one more reason not to think about making things better. The war will make everything else seem insignificant -- not only on Park Heights, but all those other decaying places we've learned to think of as acceptable losses. We don't need a war to ignore devastation in our own midst. War will just be the latest best excuse.

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