Preakness spirit prevails in Park Heights neighborhood

Despite changes, residents say entrepreneurial spirit still thrives

  • Residents of the Pimlico neighborhood, such as Terry Davis, left, of Key Avenue, rent out their parking spaces trying to earn some extra money.
Residents of the Pimlico neighborhood, such as Terry Davis,… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
May 15, 2010|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Christy Hanson started her Preakness preparations with a Google search of the area around Pimlico Race Course. She and her three friends wanted to get a feel for where the racing landmark was before they made their way to Baltimore to join the masses in frilly dresses and colorful hats.

"What came up was that it is in kind of a rough area," said Hanson, 28, of Colorado. "I e-mailed it to my friends to warn them."

But the search results illustrating a high-crime area didn't stop Hanson and her friends from trolling along the streets of the Park Heights neighborhood to score Preakness tickets Saturday afternoon. And when they did find scalpers who were able to provide them with tickets, ruffled dresses and oversize jerseys converged — and the girls didn't wince when asked for a hug of gratitude.

"We were really happy, and they were really nice people," Hanson said. "Yeah, the neighborhood might have a bad rap, but there are bad seeds everywhere.

"Besides, look at all of the families and people," she said taking stock of the festive block.

Park Heights residents acknowledge that the festive scene in the neighborhoods surrounding Pimlico is one that only Preakness could paint. Many say it's the one weekend out of the year that the community gathers in their streets, yards and porches for something positive.

"It's the one day of fun," said resident Ricky Martin, as he ate homemade Jamaican jerk chicken, stopping every once in a while to summon passers-by to come and buy the dish for lunch. "Nobody's arguing or fighting."

As Preakness-goers filtered inside the racetrack from every direction, neighbors offered up an array of goods and services from ribs to parking spaces. Among them were local favorites like crab cakes and snowballs.

"It's a whole different atmosphere when the Preakness is on," Jenise Brooks, whose mother has lived on Hayward Avenue for more than 50 years, said as she smiled and waved at a neighbor selling hats along the street. "We don't get along like this any other day. It's one of the only reasons my mom stays here."

Park Heights residents aren't the only ones who enjoy the once-a-year neighborhood block party.

"I'm from the South, and I can't get ribs like this anywhere else," said John B. Roberts, a landscaper from North Carolina who has attended the Preakness with his family for the past 24 years.

For the past six years, Roberts has made sure he has protected his expensive button-up shirts, navy blazers and pinstriped pants before digging into the barbecue ribs served by a Philadelphia-theme food station on Hayward Avenue. He left his family in the VIP area to get his traditional Preakness meal.

It's loyal clients like Roberts who keep these stands going, residents said.

Others pumped up the volume of their sales pitches, advertising their front yards as parking lots.

Yet Sheila Stanley, who has lived in her Northern Parkway home for 25 years, simply sat in a lawn chair under the shade of an umbrella, waiting for her customers to come in rolling in.

That's why she's called "The Parking Matriarch," she said.

"I don't need a sign," said Stanley as she watched Beth Duncan, a client of 16 years, pull into her backyard and take her favorite spot. "If I had a mailbox in my door, I wouldn't even have to be here."

Many residents said decreasing attendance and more stringent rules have hurt their impromptu businesses. Things have changed for many who take to the blocks around Pimlico to cash in on the event.

Brandon Adams, 28, who graduated from pushing alcohol in shopping carts to selling fried chicken, sat on his parking lot on Winner Street, shaking his head as he watched people walk past his signs offering $5 chicken lunches. In years past, he made at least $700 by midafternoon. He had only sold one by 2:30 p.m.

"It used to bring in money," he said. "Now it's just scenery."

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