West Indian merchants in Park Heights greet city's plans for their neighborhood with hope, skepticism

An uncertain future

December 01, 2006|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

It's just another abandoned building for now, but with a little work, Dawn Samuels thinks it could be transformed into the ultimate hub of Park Heights' Caribbean community.

Creating a cultural center would take money, time and cooperation from her fellow West Indian merchants along Park Heights Avenue -- a combination that has proven difficult in the past. But a new city plan for Park Heights has given Samuels hope that her long-held dream might get a jump-start.

Last month, the Baltimore City Council approved its first city master plan in 35 years, including a 47-page vision for rejuvenating one of Baltimore's most depressed neighborhoods. The key to a cleaner, safer and more economically viable Park Heights would be to improve what city Planning Director Otis Rolley III called an existing neighborhood asset: its thriving Caribbean businesses.

In a recent presentation to merchants, Rolley offered a glimpse of what it could become, with colorful sketches of tree-lined streets and bustling businesses sporting freshly painted facades. At its heart, along the corridor of Belvedere and Park Heights avenues, a Little Italy-like destination could blossom, a place where tourists and city residents descend for a dose of Caribbean culture and a taste of Jamaican curried goat and coco bread.

"I just think it could be so beautiful," said Samuels, who owns Caribbean Food Paradise, a carryout restaurant on Park Heights Avenue.

Covering a 1,500-acre area of 12 city neighborhoods, the Park Heights plan calls for a multitude of changes, from increasing drug treatment services and community policing to new programs to attract homeowners and create jobs for teens. The city's 200-page master plan sets a framework for how land is developed, but any element would need to be approved by the City Council to be implemented.

But not all West Indian merchants are enthused with the concept. Some merchants have reacted with cautious optimism, wondering if any plan can truly transform this corner of the city beset by grinding poverty, crime and dashed hopes. Others flat-out distrust the city's efforts and are worried that the new and improved Park Heights won't have a place for them.

Mark Bennett, who for 10 years has owned International Cutz barber shop, a door down from Samuels' restaurant on Park Heights Avenue, said he is convinced that any revitalization would price out the existing businesses.

"Those sketches look good; the design is beautiful," said Bennett, whose family moved to Baltimore from Jamaica in 1970. "I would hope it could happen here and that they would help fix up everyone's business and we can stay. But that's not ever going to happen."

At the recent community meeting in the popular neighborhood lounge Blue Caribbean, Rolley pleaded for merchants' help in shaping a vision of a new Park Heights.

"I need to engage with you," he said. "I promise you it will not be a waste of your time. We want you to step up, and we are going to step up."

Rolley acknowledged that community distrust is an obstacle to any revitalization effort but said that the master plan offers a fresh start.

"There has never been a neighborhood or an area where I have worked where there wasn't the suspicion that `this is the plan to get us out of here,'" said Rolley. "But we're begging people to hear us out. We will continue to try to reach out and tell everyone that we are serious. The only way to prove this is to deliver it."

Engaging the Caribbean community has proven challenging. The city has been soliciting ideas about the plan since late 2003 and has held community meetings throughout this year. Residents have attended, but merchant participation has been spotty, said Rolley.

"A lot of people feel overlooked," said Elaine Simon, president of the Caribbean American Carnival Association of Baltimore, an umbrella group for West Indian culture, who helped organize the community meeting with Rolley. "Some of us have been in the Park Heights community for 35 years; that's a long time. But they were still not aware of any revitalization efforts."

Merchants acknowledge that they have struggled to speak with one voice. Several years ago, a thriving business association fizzled because of personality conflicts, said Simon, who added that she plans to organize additional meetings with the city to build upon the plan.

Samuels thinks the new Park Heights plan could resuscitate the merchant group -- but only if people work together.

"A lot of people complain that the city people just come and talk and there's no action. But the reason there's no action is because people don't show up," she said. "You have to fight for what you want, and even if it doesn't happen at the end of the day, at least you can say you tried."

Many Caribbean merchants see themselves as pioneers who have weathered the neighborhood problems and hope to stay around to see improvements.

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