It’s nice to visit the old familiar places, as long as they don’t break your heart.
The other day, I drove along Park Heights Avenue, from the old Pimlico library at Garrison Avenue down to Park Circle, where we once found the amusement park rides and the sunlit swimming pool and the enchantment of a place called Carlin’s Park.
And all my eyes perceived — and not for the first time — was the utter devastation of a street once considered one of Baltimore’s grandest boulevards.
This was the area we used to call “the Golden Ghetto.” We said it with a twinkle in the eye. The phrase mocked all of the ancient Jews-only areas our grandparents knew as they made their way here from the miserable ghettos of Eastern Europe.
In the post-war years, if you moved to any neighborhood above Park Circle, you felt as if you’d arrived in glorious, middle-class America.
Now, in the dozen or so blocks from Garrison Avenue to Park Circle, I started counting abandoned houses. Some of these merely had boards over empty window frames, grass that hadn’t been cut in a long time and trash littered about.
Others looked as though God himself had wreaked furious havoc, ripping apart rooftops and porches, and then decided partway through the devastation, “Why go on?”
You have one abandoned house on a block, and it sends a signal: This is a neighborhood without pride. It’s a place where no one wants to live and no one wants to raise children.
You have more than one abandoned house, and the signal is worse: It says, this is a dumping ground. It says even City Hall has given up, and no one is paying attention.
And on these dozen blocks, first driving south, then driving north, I counted roughly 150 abandoned, decaying, ramshackle houses, some with roofs caved in, windows gone, weeds and trash everywhere.
Many of us recall the Park Heights of our youth and still hear the laughter of kids spilling out of Pimlico Junior High. But school’s out now, and the building’s been replaced by a police training center. Or we recall the Uptown movie theater, or the Avalon. Gone, gone. Or the Pimlico branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Long gone, now a Head Start center.
“Forty years of bad public policy,” outgoing City Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector was saying the other day. She shook her head sadly. She remembers when things were better, and she knows there’s enough blame here to spread around.
But here’s the dilemma. Let’s agree there’s enough blame here to go around, but let’s also ask: Why has Park Heights’ decline been so visible for so long — decades now — and no one in power has said: Enough!
During the past 40 years, I’ve asked one mayor after another — Schaefer, Schmoke, O’Malley, Dixon, Rawlings-Blake — what they were going to do about the deterioration on Park Heights, and one after another they’ve issued assurances: Yes, yes, we’re going to rehabilitate the whole area, just wait and see.
Well, we’re still waiting.
Over coffee at Cross Keys the other morning, Catherine Pugh, the presumptive incoming mayor of Baltimore, gave similar assurances. She talked about money earmarked in the past that’s been wasted. She talked about money currently earmarked — specifically, from new slot machine funds — and said better days were coming for Park Heights and the other Northwest Baltimore major corridors.
Here’s hoping her words are backed by more substance than the empty utterances of so many mayors before her.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).
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