City neighborhood grows more diverse

Fallstaff: In the community where three children were killed, the Hispanic population is increasing.

May 29, 2004|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,SUN STAFF

Exactly four weeks ago yesterday, a Mexican grill replaced a failed kosher restaurant on Reisterstown Road near Seven Mile Lane.

Mari Luna Mexican Grill - named after the Mexican-born owner's wife - is the latest sign of the growing ethnic diversity along Northwest Baltimore's Park Heights Avenue and Reisterstown Road corridors, from Belvedere Avenue to the county line.

Jews and African-Americans are the dominant population groups, but Russians and Caribbeans have a substantial presence. The most recent additions are Hispanics, whose numbers are small but growing.

In Fallstaff, Hispanics numbered 201, or about 5 percent of the population in 2000, according to census figures. But that was more than double the number of Hispanics living in the community in 1990.

At Cross Country Elementary School, the number of Hispanic pupils has increased from 14 to 47 in just five years, official data show. The three children who were slain Thursday were pupils at the school. Two relatives have been charged in the killings.

The Hispanic population does not have the visibility of distinctively attired Orthodox Jews, who can be seen in large numbers on Park Heights Avenue and side streets, walking to synagogues on the Sabbath and religious holidays.

But Hispanics are becoming a factor.

Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc., an affiliate of the Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, has a bilingual organizer.

"Northwest Baltimore is a magnet not only for Orthodox Jews, but also for African-Americans and Latinos," said the staff member, Peruvian-born Lucy Brigman.

She said some Hispanics have bought homes in the area. Others have moved to apartment complexes, which were built in the 1960s and were filled mostly with senior citizens until recently.

"They are hardworking people," Brigman said of the Latin Americans. She said they are drawn to Northwest Baltimore by job opportunities in restaurants and construction, and by the proximity to public transit and highways.

Se habla espanol

A sign of the times is in the window of Goldman's Kosher Bakery, at Fallstaff Shopping Center on Reisterstown Road.

"Se habla espanol," it says, inviting Hispanics to buy cakes and pastries for "birthdays, baptisms, weddings, celebrations and any other occasion."

According to Linda Collier, who has worked at the bakery for eight years, cheesecakes with tropical fruit toppings are in demand.

A few blocks north is Tienda Rosita Grocery, which carries such items as spices, canned goods, CDs and videos. A saleswoman told a visitor yesterday, "I no speak English."

Population gain

The Fallstaff area is one of the few in the city to gain in population in the 1990s. It is about 46 percent white and 46 percent black, according to census data. About a quarter of its residents were foreign-born; of those, about half came to the United States in the past decade.

While the number of African-Americans grew significantly in the 1990s, the influx of big Orthodox Jewish families, often from the New York area, has also been noticeable. They have given a new lease on life to the Jewish Community Center, which recently underwent a multimillion-dollar modernization and expansion program.

Russian immigrants, often Jewish but mostly not religious, are also a visible influence. Half a dozen delicatessens feature a variety of fresh and smoked fish, traditional sausages - including one named after Stalin - bread, stuffed cabbage and pickles.

"This may be empty now, but it's crowded in the morning and evening," said Olga Tymofyeva at a bookstore named Russia House.

On Park Heights Avenue, just south of Northern Parkway, the ethnic mix changes again. Caribbean immigrants operate at least eight stores in a neighborhood that was predominantly Jewish 35 years ago.

"I come here all the time," Jamaican-born Vilma Roxburgh said as she examined bags of calaloo greens at a West Indian grocery.

The Glen Burnie resident moved to Baltimore after living in Canada. She used to party along Park Heights Avenue, but "I don't do it any more because I am a Christian now, plus I had a stroke."

The stretch between Northern Parkway and Belvedere Avenue just opposite Pimlico Race Course has a distinctly Rastafarian flavor. A sign on a vegetarian establishment declares it to be a "Rastarant." There are photos for sale that depict singer Bob Marley smoking marijuana. Other Rasta symbols include Ethiopian flags and photos of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Above P&S Jamaican American restaurant is a protruding sign. It has a likeness of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. painted on one side, Malcolm X on the other and a legend: "From slavery to drugs to prison to rejuvenation."

Tamika Grey, who was behind the counter at a hip-hop boutique named I Got The Hookup, said outsiders often have difficulty seeing and recognizing the layers of ethnicity on Park Heights Avenue.

"When they started showing news about the murders on television, I started getting calls from family members who asked if I knew the victims," she said inside the store, which is 18 blocks from the murder scene.

Sun staff writer Eric Siegel contributed to this article.

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