Baltimore City Council President Brandon M. Scott, poised to become the next mayor of Baltimore, opens his TV commercials with memories of growing up around lower Park Heights Avenue.
He’s speaking as if voters need no explanation. Yes, yes, of course, Park Heights Avenue, just awful, how sad. Like Scott, many have no idea that Park Heights, once upon a time, was considered heaven and not hell.
That’s how long it’s been. We’re in a “once upon a time” state of mind now.
With a little more than a week left until Election Day, go to Scott’s mayoral website (https://www.brandonforbaltimore.com) where he gets a little more detailed. Watch one video, where Scott says, “I grew up, like so many kids in Park Heights, watching as guns and drugs tore my neighborhood apart.”
Or watch another video there, where Scott says, “Growing up at Park Heights and Pimlico, right behind our house, there was an apartment complex known as the ranch. It was the ranch because of shootouts. It was the O.K. Corral. Every night, guns, drugs and violence. Every single night.”
Or watch another video, where Scott calls Park Heights “one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in one of the most dangerous cities in the country.”
Scott is 36 years old.
As I am slightly more than twice Scott’s age, I remember when Park Heights was nothing like his description. In fact, it was a symbol of arrival.
It symbolized middle-class life for all those thousands of families in the booming post-war years who scuffled out of under-nourished neighborhoods and made it all the way out to Northwest Baltimore, above Park Circle along Park Heights and Reisterstown Road and Liberty Heights and all the residential neighborhoods in between, and found lush, leafy communities they’d never previously known.
Which leaves both Scott and me — and everyone else paying even slight attention — with the same question: What the hell happened?
We know some of the story. We know about the panicky white flight (from neighborhoods all over the city) out to surrounding counties as racial integration arrived in the 1960s and ‘70s.
In that frantic time, we know about some people who moved but held onto their properties for decades, and when the homes deteriorated badly enough they found it cheaper to abandon them than repair them.
We know about realtors who bought the properties, and split formerly single-family homes into dwellings for multiple families, and the homes were worn down until they became unlivable.
And we know about some people who moved into in those homes and mistreated them so badly that entire neighborhoods took on the character of war zones, which is what they became as guns and drugs proliferated.
That’s been life along parts of lower Park Heights for longer than Brandon Scott has been alive.
Over the years, I’ve interviewed every mayor from William Donald Schaefer to Catherine Pugh about Park Heights. All were full of empty promises. All expressed great intentions of renovation and rebirth, including Sheila Dixon, who grew up in the area and knew Park Heights from riding to Northwest High School every day.
Words, empty words.
So now we come to Brandon Scott, who never knew Park Heights (or Reisterstown Road or Liberty Heights) in the glory years, when they were among the city’s proudest boulevards, with libraries, movie theaters, restaurants, shops and proud public schools instead of the world Scott has always known.
And so in the week before he’s expected to be elected the next mayor of Baltimore, we leave him with the same question posed to mayors of the past half-century: Can we believe you when you say better days are coming for Park Heights?
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, including “Tonight at 6: A Daily Show Masquerading as Local TV News” (Apprentice House) and “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).