Once again, building community in Park Heights

Paul Brown sees beauty in Park Heights wherever he looks.

He sees other things, too, the things most outsiders see — the approximately 2,000 boarded-up homes, the vacant lots filled with weeds and rubble. The fallout that comes from living in one of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods (the median 2010 household income was $27,123, according to the U.S. census) is hard to miss.

But just beneath, there is so much potential that it’s hard for Brown to understand why everyone can’t see it. Some of the widest boulevards in Baltimore, lined with some of the largest trees, are located in Park Heights. Those streets contain huge, neglected brick homes with elegant lines that can be bought for next to nothing.

Ten years ago, Brown purchased a five-bedroom, 1932 corner rowhouse in the 2500 block of Keyworth Ave. for $8,000.

“I didn’t want to move here,” Brown says. “I knew Park Heights’ reputation. But when I saw this house, I had no choice.”

His neighbors, Brown thinks, are a lot like these homes — undervalued by most, but substantial at their core and with intricate nooks and crannies.

Many of those homes in what was a classic “streetcar suburb” were built in the first half of the 20th century by the children of Jewish immigrants.

Gil Sandler was born in 1923 on the second floor of a red-brick rowhouse in the 3600 block of Cottage Ave. when the neighorhood was so heavily Jewish that there was a synagogue every few blocks.

As a teen, Sandler got a job at the pony ride for Carlin’s Park on Reisterstown Road. Later, he was an assistant to the “Guess Your Weight” guy.

“I have a very very warm spot in my heart for the neighborhood I grew up in,” says Sandler, the author of six books, including “Glimpses of Jewish Baltimore.”

“Druid Hill Park was our country club. There were tennis courts and a swimming pool. On hot summer nights, we’d sleep outside in the park.”

Today, such former landmarks as the Talmudical Academy (now housing for homeless teens) and the old Jewish School #59 (now affordable housing for seniors) have taken on new roles.

“A lot of people don’t realize is that it was the Jews who first gave the opportunity of home ownership to black people,” says Christopher Crockett, president of the Springhill Derbymanor Greenspring Keyworth Community Association.

“My mother used to clean the house for a politician who helped her buy a home by the Pimlico racetrack in 1970. He introduced her to a lender who gave her a mortgage. It enabled her to take six children out of the projects and give them a backyard and grass. My mother went on to buy several more homes.”

Starting in the 1960s, Park Heights’ demographics shifted dramatically.

Unscrupulous real estate agents engaged in block-busting, preying on racial fears to persuade residents to sell their homes at below-market value. The average income of neighborhood residents plummeted and the crime rate escalated.

Once nearly entirely white, by 2010, Park Heights was 96 percent black.The Jewish community resettled in the streets north of Northern Parkway.

In 2008, the city adopted an urban renewal plan and founded a quasi-public agency, Park Heights Renaissance, to streamline redevelopment efforts. Its $2.5 million annual budget is funded partly with revenues generated by state casinos.

Among the group’s initiatives is Safe Streets, in which outreach workers connect with high-risk youths. The organization’s executive director, Cheo Hurley, is proud that the targeted area went for more than 400 consecutive days without a shooting.

Park Heights Renaissance’s Clean & Green team removes litter from streets and alleys. Its members mow the grass and trim the hedges fronting abandoned homes.

“We take a vacant lot,” Crockett says, “and transform it as though someone lived there.”

For example, an eyesore in the 3800 block of Cottage Ave. has become a field where youths play football and baseball..

In their spare time, Brown and Crockett even transformed the rubble-filled park just behind the Keyworth Avenue rowhouse into a green oasis with winding stone paths, mature trees, a children’s park and a stage.

“We’ve already had a gospel weekend that had a really, really nice turnout of about 200 people,” Brown says. “I am so proud of what we are doing here.”

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com